The Town Crier’s Julienne Isaacs sat down with Nathan Dueck, author of king’s(mère), a poetic interpretation of the life of William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Julienne Isaacs: What are you working on these days?
Nathan Dueck: I’m working on some poems so revolutionary they’ve turned the avant-garde into the après-garde. Maybe I’m working post-après poetry? I really can’t tell you. (To be honest, I’m not really comfortable bragging about my work, so I hide behind my grade-school français—such a vantard.)
I’m a little nervous to confess that I’m writing lyrical poetry with old-school rhythm and rhyme, but I’m doing it for the most new-school reason I can think of. Constraint poetry is the flavour au courant in this country, so I’ve chosen to reiterate the conventions of some canonical poems. This sort of constraint is really a close reading practice because I have to interpret poetic forms, etc. So I’m rewriting a few poems from the canon as though they took pop culture from the late 1980s as their subject. For example, because an example is probably clearer than this lengthy explanation, I’ve rewritten “Kubla Khan” with references to The Real Ghostbusters.
I picked this history period for a sadly personal, prosaic reason: I didn’t know anything about postmodern irony at “the end of history.” It existed, of course—there’s no way Generation X could watch Saturday Night Live or David Letterman without developing an unhealthy sense of cynicism—but I was too naïve to know anything about it. As a child, I wanted to literally absorb cartoons, comic books, and video games, without any distance or reservation. I didn’t just want to be on TV, I wanted to be in TV. It was the last time I felt unselfconscious about liking what I liked. (I consumed The Real Ghostbusters with the same fervor that Coleridge consumed laudanum.)
Even as I write this I’m of two minds about this project: one hemisphere of my brain is just anarchic, because I’m destroying some poems that engage me, and the other hemisphere is ordered, because I’m reconstructing those poems to engage my nostalgic sense of self. Oh well. Plus ça change.
Julienne Isaacs: Some of your poems are unreadable, by which I mean they are nonlinear and heavily visual. They contain symbols and abbreviations. How do you intend such poems to be “consumed?” Are they images, stories, or stories-within-images?
Nathan Dueck: I think that “unreadable” is exactly the right word. The poems you’re describing aren’t quite “illegible,” and they’re not quite “asemic.” I hope that the visual poems in my most recent book, he’ll, are affective (maybe) in the performative sense (possibly). To me, and I’m still awkwardly hoping to articulate these poetics, these poems need readers who are willing to play with them. Such readers would be game to think about images and stories simultaneously. When they see an image, they imagine a story, or they see a story as a series of images.
(For example, there’s a visual poem from he’ll called “Cæsura” that is simply a comma. It could be an apostrophe. I need readers willing to see that image as a story of someone pausing to consider punctuation.)
(For another example, I just wrote a visual poem called “All Rights Reserved” that is simply a “copyright symbol” with a smaller “trademark symbol” just above and to the right of it, with a “registered trademark symbol” just above and to the right of it. In other words, it looks like © to the power of TM to the power of ®. I need readers willing to see that image as a story about someone considering intellectual property.)
Julienne Isaacs: In your view is the aural experience of poetry passé? How do you read such poems at readings?
Nathan Dueck: Hey, now we’re both playing with French! En garde! I actually have a very strong opinion about this: the aural experience is essential to poetry. I’m so opinionated about “aurality” because I spent years trying to write an unwritten language, Mennonite Low German, or Plautdietsch, into he’ll. The challenge of writing how that dialect sounds made me turn to sound poetry. And I try with all my might to read the sound poetry from he’ll in readings. I do this in two ways: I recorded my father, a native speaker of Plautdietsch, reading some of the Low German passages in the book with the proper accent; I also read, and admittedly fail to read, passages from the book as though they are sound poems—making guttural and falsetto noises.
Julienne Isaacs: You have proven that lists can be stories, or contain stories like nesting-dolls, stories that rely on shared cultural references. king’s(mere) romped through the life(texts) of WLMK, and he’ll played with nostalgic renderings of Mennonite/rural culture; some of your newer work (such as “Veg-o-Matic”) deals with ’80s consumer culture. Do you see yourself writing about Facebook or Twitter, about the digi-verse?
Nathan Dueck: Yes. Absolutely yes. Two years ago I published a chapbook that tried to make Tweets into stanzas. In @BillMurrayinPurgatorio, I try to retell Dante’s Purgatorio with tweets that describe scenes from Bill Murray movies. Murray appears in the Virgil role, guiding @DanteAlighieri through the purgatory of watching Meatballs through Rushmore.
Julienne Isaacs: Speaking of Twitter, ___________ (fill in the blank)?
Nathan Dueck: What would it take to get Bill Murray on Twitter?
Julienne Isaacs: Do you consider yourself a Mennonite writer? Are you sick of that question?
Nathan Dueck: Yes, I consider myself a Mennonite writer. No question. And, no, I’m not sick of that question at all. I’ve made myself quite at home in that community. So far, no one has excommunicated me. (I’m looking at you Rudy Wiebe. Seriously. There’s plenty of room in Mennonite writing for humour.)
Julienne Isaacs: A sense of humour is crucial to the reading of many Nathan Dueck poems. I believe humorous writing has potential to be the most serious, something like how it’s impossible not to laugh at funerals, or in church. Tell us a joke that is not funny.
Nathan Dueck: Okay. No pressure. I don’t have to be funny. Not at all. Just make a joke. Okay. Spontaneous is funny, right? So, try not to be spontaneous. Nothing rehearsed, either. No material. Okay. Confidence is funny, right. Well, good news, I never have to worry about that, so … a pun? An epigram? Zen kōan? You know, something funny? Not “ha-ha” funny; more like “uh, you think that’s funny!?!”
(To be honest, I really can’t think of anything that tops David Foster Wallace’s “This is water” joke.)
Julienne Isaacs: What’s next for you?
Nathan Dueck: I’m trying my hand at writing a short story. It’s based on the “Choose Your Own Adventure” format, but it’s called “Adventure You Didn’t Choose.” I’m not sure whether it’s working, but I guess that’s the point. I hope so. Aren’t some endings supposed to be disappointing?
Nathan Dueck was born in Winnipeg in 1979. He has studied at the University of Manitoba and continues to revel in literature. Nathan loves song, portrait, and parody.