JC Bouchard is the author of two chapbooks: WOOL WATER and Portraits.
It’s been an exciting year for poet JC Bouchard. What started as a conversation in a bar about why poets don’t tour the same way musicians do quickly escalated into a successfully crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign. After breezing past the minimum fundraising goal of $1,000 by pulling in close to $4,000 with the enthusiastic backing of the Canadian literary community, Bouchard, along with poets dalton derksen, Julie Mannell, Jessica Bebenek, and JM Francheteau, embarked on a reading tour called Worst Case Ontario. After setting out in their rent-a-car doing readings in eight cities across North America, the tour was reviewed in venues like Broken Pencil and The Charlatan, and covered by lit podcast Book Vacuum.
The success of a major reading tour, made possible without the help of government grants, university sponsorships, or book deals, is a small but significant shift in a movement to deinstitutionalize poetry. The poets of the Worst Case tour have what Mary Ruefle calls a stronger “allegiance to poetry [and] to art” than to knowledge and intelligence, a stance that’s increasingly harder to maintain under “the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things.” However, it’s clear that people are not only interested in Worst Case’s story, but are willing to invest in it.
Coming off the heels of the tour, Bouchard published his second poetry chapbook last month, WOOL WATER, with Toronto micro-press words(on)pages. The chapbook, a long poem in short sequences, is both understated and intense. Despite all the white space on the page, the sparse sections undulate with claustrophobia; “[m]ountains/at the city’s edge” are both too far and too close, creating an eerily picturesque entrapment. The expansiveness of the ocean and sky is in stark contrast with the tiny, mundane movements of the human body, a microcosm of the chapbook, itself a landscape broken up by condensed moments of thought and life.
Bouchard was kind enough to answer some of my questions on his performance and the collaborative process of whittling down WOOL WATER. He also indulged in a short talk, if you will, on Anne Carson. WOOL WATER launched in Toronto at The Central this past October.
Domenica Martinello: I heard you read for the first time at the launch for WOOL WATER and the experience left quite an impression. You delivered each line like a statement in uppercase, each short section like tiny ice pellets. I love when poets translate their work so engagingly off the page. Could you describe your performance style? Is the loud, stark delivery another layer of WOOL WATER, or is it your signature across all your other work?
JC Bouchard: I’m glad the reading left an impression. That loud, stark delivery actually started when I read my poem, “I Have a Fist,” during the Worst Case Ontario reading tour. The poem came out in an emotionally intense way because of the content and form, and that was sort of an epiphany. From then on I wanted to use that style in all my readings.
I realized afterward there’s an advantage to reading every line like a poem in itself. I feel that worked well when I read WOOL WATER at the launch. I believe it’s important to see and present poems differently when they’re off the page. Poems are fundamentally changed when they exist in voice and space.
One of the best things about poems on the page is that readers can insert their subjective voices. But hearing the work from outside themselves in a live setting means a new way to react and feel, whether good or bad. I want to make sure people have an experience that’s different than when they read it inside their heads.
My style also reacts to the environment. Like all poets, I want people to listen to the poetry. This can be difficult in bars where people are often listening to a number of readers in between their own conversations. I’m not entitled to an audience’s attention, especially when, in most cases, they don’t know anything about me or my work. Not everyone will automatically listen just because I have a microphone. This may be true especially when they’ve likely been to dozens of readings before and, in a sense, are accustomed to a certain delivery. This is understandable. I think a poet has a responsibility to an audience, and their poetry, to be challenging and engaging. For me, that means reading with a certain intensity that reflects the form and content of my piece.
I took it down a notch for the launch in comparison to past performances because the imagery in WOOL WATER is a little lighter, so my performance definitely depends on the work. But generally my style is consistent in terms of raising my voice and making sure every line is distinct. My current poetry is usually based on lines rather than stanzas anyway, and because the sections in WOOL WATER are so short, each line deserves distinction.
JC Bouchard’s Writing Process
Domenica Martinello: You’ve mentioned that you wrote the poems in WOOL WATER over the span of several days while on a solo trip to Iceland. Despite this burst of productivity, the poems themselves have a whittled gleam. For a long poem comprised of highly condensed sections composed in such a condensed window of time, I’m curious about what the writing (and subsequent editing) process looked like for you.
JC Bouchard: My travelling to Iceland was done without much purpose. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know places I wanted to see. I simply bought a one-way plane ticket and went.
I started writing about anything, no matter how mundane. What else was I going to do while I figured out how to spend my time? It didn’t take long to enjoy the country and I continued writing as I explored mostly Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city.
I did not set out to write WOOL WATER before the trip. The real work began later. I curated the essential images from dozens of rough entries. I originally formed them into a ten-part poem and submitted it to Arc Poetry Magazine. It was accepted for their Poet-in-Residence Mentorship Program with Sylvia Legris. With her invaluable editorial guidance I tightened up the poem, but eventually decided to expand it into the chapbook as it exists now, using additional writing from the original entries.
WOOL WATER was released by words(on)pages in October 2015.
That’s when I had to make firm choices. I knew I wanted sparse sections to represent how the experience was originally written. I was certain the sections would comprise a long poem because they come from a singular experience, but I also wanted the sections to be separated by more than roman numerals, and surrounded by as much white space as possible. Nicole Brewer and William Kemp from words(on)pages press took one more pass to improve the flow.
Overall, WOOL WATER was worked, reworked, and reworked again through a collaborative revision process spanning months. The burst of productivity was the easy part. I just wrote anything and everything with no intention of making a completed work. WOOL WATER is really a product of editing, and, above all, having clear intentions for how and what it should be.
Domenica Martinello: I often think of the “short poem” as a genre unto itself—an art perfected, in my mind, by Anne Carson in Short Talks. The sections in WOOL WATER also remind me, in their coy brevity and use of the white space on the page, of Rae Armantrout. Do you have some thoughts on the specific practice of writing (and reading) shorter or more understated poems? Or is there perhaps not as great a gulf between long and short works as I imagine?
JC Bouchard: Writers should be willing to recognize and omit what isn’t essential with short poetry. This is also true for long poems, but I think more so with short ones because obviously you’re working with self-imposed constraints, especially when whittling down a longer piece. Short poems force writers to be brutal with their choices.
Some of the first poems I ever read were short—poems by Stephen Crane, Sappho, and Basho. I remember feeling pleasure because their deceptive simplicity made them seem accessible and I wasn’t as intimated by them as I was by longer works. But ultimately I was attracted to them because they were challenging in their connotations and they begged to be reread. I could easily do that because they took up little physical space and time.
Short Talks is a wonderful example of effective short poems. Carson packs in a lot into very little. It’s difficult not to think about them longer than the time they take to read. I particularly like how she distills literary figures and concepts into what can be like punchlines, while maintaining insight and compelling imagery. There’s an instant gratification to poetry like that. There’s also a sense of discovery, like being let in on a secret, and I hope WOOL WATER has that effect.
If there’s an art in writing short poems, it’s in the capacity to be ruthless with yourself. But it’s also in not taking yourself too seriously, which is, I think, part of being ruthless.
JC Bouchard: A Guest in Reykjavik
Domenica Martinello: Your chapbook is flecked with the quiet beauty and brutality of animals: an empty room like “the mouth of/a starving lion,” shoulder blades inching together “like the maw/of a crocodile,” seagulls in flight, the sunlit wings of a cormorant. There are also instances of the speaker likening him/herself to the weather and natural environment, often with a sense of deterioration. These tensions seem to shift in each section, like a transformative, almost meteorological movement. How did the interplay of human, animal, and environmental elements come to form WOOL WATER?
JC Bouchard: For me, the interplay of person and nature was unavoidable. The natural environment surrounds even Iceland’s largest city. There are small mountains about one kilometre off the west coast of Reykjavik’s downtown core and the ocean can be accessed from either east or west. Even in February, temperatures are steady at negative two degrees or warmer, but a storm can hit any time. Iceland is also geologically young, so its landscape can be stark and desolate, but beautiful. There are glaciers, snow, waterfalls, rock, grass, and rainfall, all of which you can encounter within hours. I couldn’t help but focus on the natural environment while writing the basis of WOOL WATER because it was all around me, and I tend to be drawn to natural imagery anyway.
Iceland’s environment also had an immediate effect on my disposition. There’s something about immersing yourself in another place or culture that forces you to face and even reconsider your identity. I felt very out of place when I first arrived, about as out of place as a lion or a crocodile. But I eventually felt calm and meditative, even respectful, like I was a guest in someone’s house. There was a change.
I was fascinated by this transformation and thought of ways other natural elements transform. I think there was a significance in terms of adaptability to circumstance. Water turns to steam, ice, snow, and asserts itself in the tiniest places. Birds naturally migrate thousands of miles to dramatically different places. The landscape can turn from jet-black rock to grassy hills.
There’s an inherent ebb and flow in all aspects of nature and I don’t think people, including myself, are separate from that. I think a person is wholly transient. Change relies on the death of a previous state to make room for the next. For that reason, and maybe because of the pessimist in me, deterioration was at the forefront of most of my thinking.
JC Bouchard was born in Elliot Lake, a former mining town in northern Ontario. His poetry has appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, In/Words, (parenthetical), Rappahannock Review, Ditch, and Control Literary Magazine. In 2013, one of his poems was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize and another received Honourable Mention for the John Newlove Poetry Award from Bywords. He is the author of two chapbooks: Portraits (In/Words Press, 2014), and Wool Water (Words(on)Pages, 2015). He lives in Toronto.