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I Didn't Come Here to Make Friends: An Exchange with Michael Lista

Michael Lista is the poetry editor of the Walrus, and a poetry columnist for the National Post. His latest book, The Scarborough, is set on the weekend in 1992 when Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka abducted, tortured and killed Kristin French. It is out in September 2014 from Vehicule Press. Lista spoke with Jason Guriel about the work. 

Jason Guriel: I want to start by acknowledging that we’re friends. But I should quickly add that I don’t have a lot of friends who write. In part, it’s because I don’t get out to a lot of readings and launches. (It may just be that I’m antisocial; it may just be that readings are the worst.) I also review books, which has probably put a preemptive strain on relationships that might’ve otherwise had potential. People sometimes suggest I’m part of a camp or something; if I am, the camp grounds are mostly unpopulated. You yourself have been reviewing for the National Post for a couple of years now, and you’ve weathered some criticism—some of it quite vitriolic. What kind of impact has reviewing had on your relationships with other writers?

 Michael Lista: Once you publish reviews, everyone shows you their hand. The consensus among Canadian writers is that it’s undesirable to write critically about books. Motivated by compassion for other writers (and therefore a healthy dash of self-interest), writers have revolved so far leftwards on the spectrum when it comes to criticism that they’ve arrived on the extreme right—and on the side of censorship. If that’s where you stand, we probably won’t get along. But you also make the right friends, too. I’ve been lucky to meet a handful of writers who won’t let the free enquiry of our literature go down without a fight. Have I ever wondered if I’ve missed my chance at an interesting friendship with someone I’ve written a mixed or negative review about? Sure. But as a critic your mantra has to be the same as the contestants on the Bachelorette: “I didn’t come here to make friends.” 

JG: The other great mantra on that show is: “You’re here for the wrong reasons.” Poetry often seems to draw, to borrow a phrase from David Denby, “aesthete[s] without an art.” You don’t need facility with iMovie, you don’t need to know how to find a chord. Plus, your work will never suffer a market correction; there’s no market! It’s the perfect art form for people who are pleased by the idea that they might be creative. You’ve sort of written about this, in a piece that urged poets to publish less and instead work at their craft. Were you surprised by the fire the essay attracted? Are you surprised by any of the reactions your criticism gets, at this point? 

ML: It’s in the air: what our poetry culture wants is a general lowering of standards—and they’ve already been lowered so far that we don’t even need to earn our insults any more. My “Publish Less” essay got me called hypocritical, cruel, and in possession of a white middle-aged privilege (I’m thirty, and my immigrant grandfather, who’s still alive, was mercilessly harassed by white folk in the city I live in for being a “Guinea”—not white enough). Someone I consider a mentor and friend said on Twitter that the piece was just self-promotion. I’ve taken way worse than that, though. My piece on an essay by Jan Zwicky got me called a rapist—by Jan Zwicky.  A mixed review in April—where I say I think the poet under review is brilliant but that some of her new poems aren’t that great—earned me “racist” and “misogynist,” in the same tweet. So it’s getting harder to make me blush. 

You must have thoughts on this, having lived through the uproar caused by “Going Negative,” and Guri(el) Gate. What do you make of it?

JG: Well, I “lived through” my father’s death. A nasty response to my criticism is mildly unpleasant. I think you’re right, though, that there’s something in the air—whether it’s the poptimism of a Carl Wilson or the smarminess of a Dave Eggers, the culture has been gagging on a kind of enforced positivity for years now. But you know, to the extent that something’s in the air, the air is the stale stuff of echo chambers. When I recently toured my book The Pigheaded Soul, I met plenty of smart, independent-minded people, in places like Hamilton and Windsor, who care about honest criticism, but who aren’t especially invested in the politics of the poetry world or Facebook intrigue. You were up north not too long ago, and observed something similar, right? 

ML: It was Whitehorse; last September a great organization called The Whitehorse Poetry Society invited me to give a reading and a talk at the library. The talk was about this stuff—review culture. There were about seven or eight poets in the room but most of the folk who came out were just your elusive general reader. It became clear during the long Q&A after the talk that the vast majority of the audience members—the poets who were far enough removed from the scene not to have followed the infighting, and the non-writers both—were shocked that there was any debate about reviewers being able to articulate their consciences, and that the anti-intellectual, anti-humanist arguments on offer were being given serious consideration. It was refreshing, and it put the argument in perspective; it’s a self-serving social media phenomenon that doesn’t have too much truck outside of our incestuous scene, or with readers. 

JG: Your forthcoming book of poems, The Scarborough, which takes place during the weekend of one of Paul Bernardo’s murders, might generate some negative reviews—and not just from critics. Are you worried about the public response to this book?

ML: Sure. All I can hope for is that people actually read the book, engage in good faith with its ethics and aesthetics, and not rely on preconceived prejudices. The book is well aware it’s on sacred ground; its central question is if and how poetry can exist there. 

JG: Early on, when you talked about The Scarborough, you seemed to have quite an elaborate concept worked out—much like your debut, Bloom. The book, you would note, was not about Paul Bernardo, Canada’s most infamous serial killer. It was a write-around, and the poems, formally, would assume the character of the serial killer: accomplished on the surface, but concealing an inner horror. The myth of Orpheus provided additional undergirding. But on reading the book, I was struck by how many of the poems ultimately seem to be about a time period and its artifacts—the Marineland commercials, Cito Gaston’s Blue Jays, Super Mario 3, Terminator 2. So many of them—like “Radar,” which appeared in Hazlitt—can exist quite comfortably on their own… 

ML: Bloom wore its seams on the outside, so you could see how poem was stitched to concept. The Scarborough is the opposite. So while “Radar” can stand on its own as a poem about a nine-year old losing his teddy bear on Holy Saturday, it’s also, if you want to listen for it, corresponding to the moment at the end of Purgatory when Virgil leaves Dante, and Beatrice appears to guide him through Paradise.  I learned pretty quickly that if you’re writing poems that aren’t about something, they have to be about something, too. If you’re Orpheus, you’re not allowed to look back at your beloved, but you’re still seeing something. The Scarborough is that something. 

William Carlos Williams said there were no ideas but in things, and what I found going back to that time, when I was nine in the GTA on Easter Weekend, was that the artifacts of the time had been infused with the ideas I was interested in—a latent horror that stood silent vigil amid the ordinary. Eliot said poetry was a raid on the inarticulate; the poems in The Scarborough are a raid on the unspeakable, and I found that the farther I went from the thing I couldn’t say, the more news of it I came back with. 

JG: Let’s talk about technique, since The Scarborough will ultimately be judged on its lines. I’m thinking about half-rhymes like “The girl from Scarborough liked being slapped / Down the hall from where her mother slept” or “When I say the magic rhyme. Jeff’s a mannequin / Until the mall goes dark. Then he’s a man again.” I’m also thinking about careful moments of description, like this one, of urban sprawl: “Unfinished neighbourhoods supervised by cranes, / Sapling-lined streets that segue into farms, / Whole subdivisions sprouting up like grains.” It’s the word “supervised” that puts over the lines, right? It’s so subtle. And yet you’re not afraid of an excess of sound or a risky simile: “Grasping gripless like grass at grass…” And then there are provocative puns, like this one, which I’m sure will needle some readers: “today a couple sits and frenches.” It just occurs to me that the book is fizzing with style and formal energy, and to the extent that it’s trespassing on sacred ground, it would seem to defend itself by sheer command of language… 

ML: One of my favourite moments in art, any art, period, of the last little while, was the final scene of this season’s finale of Mad Men, a show that I normally find too long on design and too short on art. Anyway (spoiler alert!), Bert Cooper has died while watching the moon landing and in the final moments of the show, his ghost returns to sing Don “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” replete with dancing girls and a soft shoe in socks. It was so beautifully human and stupid that I cried. It reminded me of a song from one of my favourite albums, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, the concept album about Anne Frank that I thought a lot about when I was writing The Scarborough; as the album builds towards its terrible finale in “Ghost,” Jeff Mangum sings: I know that she will live forever/ All goes on and on and on / And she goe / sAnd now she knows she’ll never be afraid / To watch the morning paper blow / Into a hole where no one can escape. And then over the roaring reverb, a pipe organ and a bagpipe careen into a punk Barnum-and-Bailey Klezmer jig. It’s in moments like these, when death is met with a gaudy surplus of artistry, that you can see the fine membrane that separates art from religion, what Larkin called “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die,” something he could never quite bring himself to sneer at because he realized he’d been knitting one for himself his whole life—his poetry. I’m a fan of any art—any poetry—that tries to do that, too, marshal a decorous consolation against emptiness. 

JG: As poetry editor of the Walrus, you're seeing a lot of submissions from Canada’s poets—and, perhaps, a lot of trends. Are there any habits you wish our poets would shake? 

ML: Don’t think your subject, whatever it may be, imparts any fascination or nobility to your poem. A poem about a personal tragedy doesn’t get any more of a pass than a poem about The Real Housewives of New Jersey—it’s all in how it’s written. Poems are also bad places to do advocacy, inefficient places to politic. A poem’s town square is mostly empty, its bullhorn out of batteries, its soapbox too short.  Even a poet as great as Seamus Heaney fell victim to the impulse, when in a moment of nationalist zeal he wrote his worst poem, “Open Letter,” a perspicuously partisan bit of doggerel that whipped the government of his tongue mum. Don’t make writing choices that make your work easier, and then blame them on the world. Don’t write in sentence fragments because you think the world is fragmentary. Don’t rely on elision and then say the world is discontinuous. Don’t write facile absurdism on account of the world being absurd. It isn’t just fragmentary and discontinuous and absurd; as Siri keeps reminding you, it’s also whole and contiguous and intelligible. 

JG: Who is the most underrated living poet? 

ML: A.E. Stallings. How has she never been nominated for the international Griffin? I fall more and more in love with her poems, which are as ingenious as they are unfashionable: plainspoken, formally perfect, the complications of metaphor and diction set in unerring clockwork. I can’t get over how brilliant her sonnet “Aftershocks” is, a poem about a couple caught in an earthquake: We are not in the same place after all. / The only evidence of the disaster, / Mapping out across the bedroom wall, / Tiny cracks still fissuring the plaster—A new cartography for us to master, / In whose legend we read where we are bound: / Terra infirma, a stranger land, and vaster. / Or have we always stood on shaky ground? / The moment keeps on happening: a sound.  / The floor beneath us swings, a pendulum / That clocks the heart, the heart so tightly wound, / We fall mute, as when two lovers come / To the brink of the apology, and halt, / Each standing on the wrong side of the fault. 

The seismic impact of the double-meaning of “fault” has a force that’s more or less unrivaled in contemporary poetry, which, because it’s mostly consumed by practitioners, is an aspirational genre, like self-help or cooking; you’re only as good as you are reproducible. Since most poets will never be able to do this, they’re uninterested in it.

 JG: I think you’re right about A.E. Stallings, though, and I love that idea, that poetry is an aspirational genre. It occurs to me that the non-practitioners—i.e. actual readers— would love Stallings as well as Alexandra Oliver, Bruce Taylor, Robyn Sarah, Amanda Jernigan. These poets make it look easy, which is what makes them so readable. 

ML: The poetry world is so like the fashion world that way, isn’t it? Trend-driven and often emptily stylish. The only difference is that at least fashion recognizes and makes the distinction between prêt-à-porter and haute couture, a line that for all intents and purposes is the bottom line. People buy and wear and live in the former, and only marvel curiously at the latter. Poets like Oliver and Stallings and Taylor and Sarah are prêt-à-porter; the problem is that no one but designers are buying. I have to jump in here while we’re on about this year’s Griffins. That was the most disappointing Griffin Prize yet—equally scandalous and boring. The international prize went to the partner of one of the prize’s trustees. And the Canadian shortlist was tone deaf. The sad thing is that this was an unusually great year for Canadian poetry—Amanda Jernigan, Alexandra Oliver, Sara Peters, David Seymour. Anne Michaels’ and Anne Carson’s books over Jernigan’s and Oliver’s? I don’t think so. But it’s important to remember that the Griffins are not the final, divine reckoning its publicity would have you believe. Its elephantine scale and eclectically august guest list make it hard to keep in mind that even though the prize is held in a big room, it isn’t a big tent. You get tapped on a shortlist and then return the next year to be a judge, then return the year after on the shortlist again, rubbing elbows with Conrad Black and Michael Ignatieff and Sarah Polley. Trust me—I’ve been there, and it sure feels like you’re embowered on the right side of the pearly gates. If it isn’t as cliquey and cloistered as it looks, then at the very least no one at the Griffins is rushing to disabuse us of that misapprehension—they leave the poets in their system to explain that to rest of us.

JG: What would you love your critics to know about you, that they don’t know? 

ML: That they should jump on in, the water’s fine.