Joe Denham

Joe Denham’s Regeneration Machine (Nightwood Editions, 2015)

Over the next couple of months, The Puritan’s Town Crier blog will be featuring short interviews with Canadian authors published by BC publishers, conducted by BC publishing professionals. The fourth in the series is an interview with Shazia Hafiz Ramji of Talonbooks and BC poet Joe Denham, author of Regeneration Machine (Nightwood Editions, 2015).

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Why did you choose the title Regeneration Machine?

Joe Denham: I started writing RM over eight years ago. This while still finishing my second book, Windstorm, and also sort of preparing (which means having strange dreams and daydreams about a couple of characters, a glass fishing float, a mystical sea creature, and a sunken continent!) to write my first novel, The Year of Broken Glass. And also building a house and preparing to go out to sea for a two-month trip, plus fathering a newborn and a one year old infant, etc. Which is all to excuse myself for a lack of clear memory here: I remember writing the title on the top of the page, then just writing RM’s first stanza. What the initial thinking behind the title was, that’s fuzzy. Probably I knew I wanted to write a very long poem that—unlike Windstorm, which is a book-length poem broken up into sections of free verse, terza rima, and a round of sonnets—would continue uninterrupted from beginning to end. I’m really into book-length poems. I love Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno, and Merwin’s of Purgatorio. I think Phil Hall’s The Unsaid and Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares are extraordinary. Duino Elegies. Stilt Jack. Civil Elegies. Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On. Derk Wynand’s Snowscapes. Derk also wrote a chapbook once, Airborne, which was a 5000 word sentence. I like that. I like how Derk keeps ploughing things back into themselves to accomplish the longevity of the piece (PK Page once asserted to me that Derk cheated with that one because he used an em-dash (or maybe it was a semicolon) where he clearly should have used a full-stop period, and though she probably had a point, I still think Airborne is quite an accomplishment and it’s a real shame that it only ever saw the light of day as an obscure chapbook). Anyhow, I think I had all this in mind when I started RM. So, a regeneration machine: a poem that keeps ploughing what’s brought up back into itself. There are things I’m on about in the book: memory, the mind, grief, time, environmental degradation, ghostly visitation, the keeping alive of a lost loved-one inside an active imagination. They’re all sort of appropriate to the title, and I think because the working title was always there, the poem grew into the title as much as the title grew into the poem. By the time I handed it over to an editor and a publisher, I suppose I’d just come to know the poem as RM, and that was kind of that. Which is the answer I gave Jan Zwicky (the book’s unofficial editor) when she asked the same question you’re asking here. At that point the poem was incomplete, and she had reservations about the title, and I’m not sure that my “it is as it has always been” answer did much at the time to put her reservations to rest. So I was relieved when she agreed that the title seemed fitting once she’d read the finished poem, but now I can’t help but wonder if she was just resigning herself to the fact that I’m stubborn. Now you’re asking the same question and you may be asking it because the title somehow doesn’t seem organic to the work in your reading, because well you know I’m never really entirely certain (should I be?) about anything I’ve written or about any of these decisions regarding published work after the fact.

SHR: You write “What is it / inside me that wants to reach back with these arms and / unharm our errant hearts?” A page later, the speaker is filled with the desire to describe and share the quality of his son’s eyes: “If I could share with you the memory of the blackness of my son’s eyes [ … ] that it could be / so despairing, expansive, then I could give you one good reason / to unarm … ” I feel that this ineffable desire is present in essence in Regeneration Machine, and in poetry in general. What do you think “it” is that urged you to write this book? How long have you sat with this book, and what urged you to publish it?

JD:

Yet everything that touches us, you and me,
takes us together as a bow’s stroke does,
that out of two strings draws a single voice.
>Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what player has us in his hand? O sweet song.

Aside from the very obvious deficiency in thinking in regarding the masculine possessive pronoun (which I suppose we should forgive Rilke for, given the world he was writing in around the turn of the 19th century), these are beautiful lines, no? They articulate something that’s at the heart of what you’re asking about. Sometimes poetry is trying to grasp the ineffable, trying to articulate the unspeakable. I’d hesitate to say this is necessarily present “in poetry in general.” I think certain poets, yes, while others are up to various other things that have much more to do with preoccupations of here and now, events of the modern world, issues of the day, whatever seems hip to the crowd they’re in with, etc. Of course, the question has to be asked here: what do we mean when we say “poetry”? I try to create a definition that tunes out the noise of all that is or has been done that seems to qualify as “poetry” today—I’m talking about Bob Dylan to Kenneth Goldsmith to slam (I think “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” is a fantastic line, but I don’t think of it as poetry). I guess one of the key things for me is that the poet is actively engaged in trying to address or define the ineffable (even if she/he is doing so in the Aquinian sense of trying to define it in terms of what it is not), and they’re doing so solely within the confines of language—and further, within language that essentially coheres. Which is, by definition, an impossibility. Nonetheless, poems are, to me, meditations on where we are, what’s happening here, what’s here with us in this space and time, and what that maybe says about all the things that are here (or just beyond here) that we can’t see or hear or entirely grasp. (To clarify all this “definition of poetry” talk: Politics is politics. Science is science. Music is music. Poetry is poetry. There are distinctions, and I think they’re important. We’ve just come through a time when it was vital to push up against definitions, boundaries, but I think it doesn’t serve us any longer. I think the whole idea that anything someone calls poetry is then poetry has done and does do a lot of damage to the discipline at this point. Someone says, “Great Poetry,” and someone else answers, “Outmoded Patriarchal/Colonialist Bullshit,” and each side tightens their definition and grip, and it doesn’t really seem like real critical assessment of the work before us is being done. There is a lot of writing that gets published as poetry that really shouldn’t be cluttering shelves (I’ve asserted before that some of my earlier work falls into this category, and I maintain that view. I think it’s indicative of what I’m talking about, and why I think it’s important to talk about it, when I look at my statements and see that that early work is still my best selling!).

But anyhow, to answer your questions directly: I have no idea what “it” is that urges me to write (at a base level there is the spectrum of motivators, from solipsism/narcissism to cultural generosity/universal connection, but that’s a very long conversation), except to say that I’m trying to figure something out about what’s going on here in life and writing musical thought seems to be one of the best ways people have to do that. As I mentioned supra, I spent eight years writing RM. There was never really any question about whether or not I would publish it. I like publishing books. I think of myself as a public writer, an artist, with something to offer both the art form and whatever audience might find my work. So, as long as the writing has something to offer, is good, really good, then I want to publish it. (I like to think of it in terms of this litmus test: is it worth the lives of the trees it’s printed on and those of the slave/sweatshop labourers who build the devices it’s created, and, frequently now, read on? Of course the answer is always no—this is where a sort of all-pervasive, cultural solipsism comes into play, and is getting to the nitty-gritty of the moral dilemma stuff I’m delving into in RM—and to be clear, I write a lot of stuff that never sees the light of day, and I only publish when I feel like I can honestly answer to those lives I’ve mentioned that I’ve absolutely done the best I can, which is weak medicine, but there it is.)

SHR: Why did you choose the form of a 100-stanza letter in verse to address your friend, Nevin?

JD: The 100-stanza thing wasn’t a goal or anything. It just worked out that way. I came to the end of the writing, counted backwards, and there were 100 stanzas. If the question’s less about specific stanza count and more about “why verse?” I suppose verse is just what I write much of the time. And just about all of the time, when I’m trying to tackle that ineffable thing we’ve been talking about. Also, RM is a sort of elegy, and of course, verse is intrinsic to elegy. I made a couple attempts through the years to write Nevin into a work of fiction, but it always felt kind of contrived, a bit too detached. So I realized I needed to write to him, not about him. Nevin loved poetry and song, and it just seemed that once I started RM, found its cadence and rhythm, that I had so much to say to him, to his ghost or memory or whatever, and the years ticked by and the stanzas just piled up.

SHR: How has your work as a commercial fisherman influenced your poetry?

JD: That’s such a big question. One for a summer porch and a good bottle (or several) of red, really, because I could just go on and on. I suppose I should just say that being a fishboat captain for almost 20 years has been possibly the most instructive and influential thing for me as an artist. As much so, though in an obviously different way, as marriage and fatherhood has been. Put yourself 200 miles offshore, the middle of the night, at the helm of a 60-foot boat bucking into gale force winds, the deckhands all asleep in the fo’c’sle, the big diesel and the compressor rumbling. The cabin’s dark and the water 20 feet below is black and almost monstrous, waves breaking over the steel bow and washing along the gunwales. Diesel engines break down. Boats sink. A person can’t survive very long in that frigid water. Every year I go out there I’m reminded of the basic precariousness of life, the risks and sacrifices so many people have made and do make to get through the day, the week, and the years. And also the expansiveness, the massive, ungraspable beauty at sea. Come back to FB, Netflix, Costco, Whole Foods, cars and sidewalks, the safety of a decent hospital down the road, and it’s easy to forget how basic and elemental life is, how fierce and powerful and beautiful the world we’re living in is. It keeps the what and why of the work clear. It turns down the daily news noise, the lit-scene squabbling, all that, and retunes my mind to what matters, to what I’m trying to address in my writing.

SHR: The book begins with an epigraph from Tomas Transtromer: “There is an ache inside that Gordian knot, the brain, which wants to do so much in so many directions.” How has reading Transtromer influenced Regeneration Machine?

Joe Denham

Joe Denham is the author of Flux (Nightwood Editions, 2003), Windstorm (Nightwood Editions, 2009), and The Year of Broken Glass (Nightwood Editions, 2011)

JD: I haven’t read Transtromer! Those lines are from a translation published in The New Yorker that I stumbled across in an acupuncturist’s waiting room one afternoon (this is in the early-to-mid stages of RM’s composition), and they just stayed with me, like a good song does. I realized at some point they seemed to articulate something about the writing of and the writing in RM, and they seemed to have a place as an epigraph. I hesitated to include them when we got down to final decisions precisely because I haven’t read a lot of Transtromer, so I really don’t know what I’m suggesting to the reader, what I’m potentially alluding to beyond what the lines are clearly stating. Usually, if I include an epigraph, it’s by someone I’ve read a lot of, so I know what light (or shadow) I’m casting the work in, but this was different. I decided to go with it much in the same way I decided to go with the title (and much of the writing in the verses). Which is to say, I decided to trust the initial impulse and the awareness of resonance that led me to place those Transtromer lines at the top of page one when I did. One of the dangers of writing the same poem for eight years is that initial impulses recede, and it’s possible to left-brain everything into submission. Edit, edit, edit. There’s always a reason not to say or do something, and often the reasons are good. I don’t want that for my writing. Which isn’t to say I don’t value craft and a hard-nosed application of “is this of merit?” but I want some of that right-hemisphere, dreamworld otherness to occur. Which is not to argue for some sort of Aeolian harpism, nor is it a first-words-best-words, Ginsberg kind of thing. It goes back to trying to approach the ineffable: the impulse to do things safely, carefully, and always with reason, that’s not going to necessarily get you there. There has to be some wilderness, some wildness in the work. From a purely technical perspective, there are certainly faults in RM, but I think the impulse to redact to the point of lifelessness needs to be tempered, somewhat, with risk, over-stretching, and perhaps one of the things that determines the difference between a good, clearly competent writer, and a great writer, is the intuitive ability to make those moves, to know when to take out the tangential, unruly, the not-so-obviously-pertinent, and when to leave it in, let it be the one thing that resets everything else around it in a light that otherwise might never be cast.   

Joe Denham is the author of Flux (Nightwood Editions, 2003), Windstorm (Nightwood Editions, 2009), and The Year of Broken Glass (Nightwood Editions, 2011). His work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets (Nightwood Editions, 2004). He lives with his wife and two children in Halfmoon Bay, BC.

Shazia Hafiz Ramji lives in Vancouver, BC where she works as an editor at Talonbooks, and as an interviews editor at CWILA. Her writing has recently appeared in Canadian Literature, Room, and Forget Magazine. She is an Infinite Jester.

Nightwood Editions is committed to publishing and promoting the best new poetry and fiction by writers across Canada. Our goal is to give readers a chance to explore the high-quality work of emerging Canadian writers, and new writers an opportunity to publish their work in book form. Ultimately, Nightwood Editions strives to publish books that foster a community of writers and readers, providing a forum for thought, discussion and interaction while reflecting the diversity our country is known for.

Nightwood is also dedicated to producing excellent Canadian non-fiction that helps support its literary list. Whether publishing poetry, sports, fiction or crossword titles, Nightwood Editions maintains the highest standards in all it undertakes, building on its growing reputation. 

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