RUSTY TALK WITH GREGORY BETTS
Gregory Betts is a poet, editor, scholar, and professor born in Vancouver, raised in Toronto (by Maritime parents), now living in St. Catharines. He is the author of seven books of poetry: If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006), The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009), Psychic Geographies and Other Topics (Quattro Press, 2010; also as an e-book), The Obvious Flap (BookThug, 2011), This is Importance (Wolsak & Wynn, 2013), and Boycott (Make Now Books, 2014). His poetry and criticism explore and re-imagine Canadian avant-garde literary production, and evolved into the book Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (University of Toronto Press, 2013). Betts is the Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Brock University, where he is also the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence.
Tom Cull: You are described as both an “experimental” and an “avant-garde” poet. Are these two terms interchangeable?
Gregory Betts: No, well at least not for me—and, furthermore, in some respects they are oppositional. For me, experimental means willing to try something totally new and risk failure. Avant-garde, on the other hand, refers specifically to writers who try to change the world outside their writing through their writing, who care enough about their society/community to want to lead it somewhere. “Come the revolution,” as Stephen Collis implores. The former looks inwards towards the form in relation to other kinds of writing and modes of expression and risks saying something that might well be incomprehensible. The latter looks outward towards the world beyond the page and takes a stand. To be clear, in most cases and for most people these terms are interchangeable and they get bandied about freely without much investment. They are used to refer to just about everything. So what I’m highlighting here is the thing that makes them both appealing to me especially in their difference.
Conversely, when “avant-garde” means something akin to “innovative” it’s just another boring substitute for capitalism. “Experimental” is too often synonymous with self-indulgence and poor editing. I’m not sure either term really applies to my writing: I don’t think I’ve been socially ambitious enough, as yet, to be called avant-garde, and though I fail and fail often I don’t think any of my failures amount to anything spectacular enough yet to really register on that other front. Kenneth Goldsmith recently failed in trying to make poetry out of police shooting victim Michael Brown’s autopsy report, and failed spectacularly. I’m not sure what he was going for exactly, but I condemn the casual cruelty of his appropriation of race. Like Frankenstein, it’s like he lost the human perspective in his pursuit of the experiment. The avant-garde and experimentation are interchangeable inasmuch as they are both well-littered graveyards of catastrophe and disappointment.
TC: Have you always written experimental poetry? What draws you to experimental poetry over more traditional forms of poetic expression?
GB: Hmmm… I suppose I see experimentation as part of the poetic tradition, indeed intrinsic to the kind of writing I care most about—and I don’t think “traditional” writers like Coleridge, Blake, or Byron or Atwood would disagree (though Tennyson would). When I work with permutations, for instance, I feel a connection to bpNichol and Brion Gysin and Robert Filiou and, more recently, to Angela Rawlings and Margaret Christakos. Is this so different from the ancient Sanskrit epic poem “Kiratarjuniya”, that contains loops, anagrams, repetitions and other language games? Perhaps the bigger split is between expressive and disjunctive writers. In Canada, ever since Phyllis Webb let air and space invade her page, silence has been thematized as an appropriate response to what the Situationists called “the present multiform crisis” of Western colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. M. NourbeSe Philip more recently highlights the necessary task of letting language collapse for different but related reasons.
I am interested in writers that explore language as a problem as a metonymy of the boundaries of human experience, and especially those who then experiment in search of new portals to find a way out or at least to find a new elsewhere. If we want to expand the possibilities of the human, we need first to confront the limitations of our primary technology. Language is not just our point of access to the world, and to other people (or creatures or machines), but it is our principal point of contact with ourselves. Poetic expression that does not register the limitations of the tool it is using to reflect or pontificate on the world always seems too comfortable within the present world.
TC: You wrote The Obvious Flap (Bookthug, 2011) in collaboration with the poet Gary Barwin. Your internet poetry is also highly collaborative. What appeals to you about collaboration?
GB: Collaboration is exciting—you give up the very thing that most limits poems, the I-self, and yet somehow still learn from within the fold of your own production. It’s the schism of voices that creates a fracture, an opening to something disturbingly new. And you have to take responsibility for saying something that you would never say on your own. How delightfully disturbing! This is especially true when you work closely with a writer as inventive and open as Gary Barwin. My other collaborator was Facebook. All of Facebook is more conservative an imaginative space than Gary Barwin.
TC: I want to ask you about your two most recent books. First, This Is Importance (Poplar Press, 2013) is a collection of mistakes comprised from years of marking student papers. You preface the collection with an essay in which you celebrate mistakes as a necessary part of the learning process. Do you distinguish between mistakes that are born of trying and mistakes that are born of a lack of trying?
GB: In the context of an essay, while grading, that’s a rather subtle difference! In that project, especially, I was interested in inadvertent insights—errors that are so far off the mark that they reveal something completely otherwise (other-wise) by mistake. It’s the surprise and the misdirection that make them so appealing. What I realized, as I was grading papers filled with errors such as you’ll find in the book, was that I was not reading those papers with my poetry brain but with a rote, evaluative brain. How dull and limiting! And what a mistake! Keeping myself attuned to the poetry of the error is a way of making the grading process weird and wonderful. Also, I bring them into the classroom when I find them to talk about (after we have a laugh) what went wrong and how to learn from it. Humour and error are definitely a large part of my pedagogy, and how I learn things for myself too.
TC: Part of this process has to do with learning to laugh at our mistakes—to enjoy the humour of transgression. As an artistic form that champions transgression, why does poetry seem take itself so seriously?
GB: That’s a critique that Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball sought to address (and contest) with their recent anthology Why Poetry Sucks, a collection of very funny experimental poems. They make the subtle but important point that weird things have a pleasure in themselves, even before you get into all the serious stuff going on. Thinking about a fishchair or a carsoon or even completely made-up words (free words, my son calls them) is an invitation to imaginative play. The avant-garde is built on this kind of play. It becomes so so serious when that upriotous fun is aimed specifically against dominant values, but to me that just adds to the pleasure even as it grimly acknowledges the mess of the world.
TC: Your most recent book Boycott (Make Now Press, 2014) samples and assembles statements taken from boycott movements from around the world. What interests you about the concept and practice of boycotting?
GB: Well, ever since I was a kid, I’ve been involved in boycotting. I learned, over a cigarette behind my high school, that McDonald’s sold “100% Canadian beef” but that “100% Canadian beef” was actually the name of a company that raised cattle in the Amazonian rainforests. Nauseated, I have never stepped foot in one since, even though they have reversed that particularly egregious abomination. I’ve picked up a few more boycotts over the years, and, twenty years later, finally decided to spend some time investigating the tool and what I was actually participating in by boycotting. What I discovered was disconcerting: boycotts are one of the most powerful tools of progressive social movements (which is how I learned of them), but they are also the expression of enormous power differentials that reinscribe things I’m much less comfortable with. The book, thus, starts with boycott movements against the big powers and the leading economies, things most people are comfortable with, but gradually addresses boycotts against increasingly marginalized groups. There is an American-led boycott movement against Haiti for fuck’s sake! Boycotting, I have come to realize, is an ambivalent tool that can be used for good and evil. Ultimately, the ability to boycott only reflects one’s ability to withhold capital, which of course privileges those with the most capital. I’m implicated in those realizations.
TC: This Is Importance employs a more standard typographical format—the lines have regular margins, spacing, and categorization. Boycott, however, employs a wide spectrum of typographical variations. Both books are comprised of found poems; how, in each book, did you decide upon the arrangement of the lines on the page?
GB: In This is Importance, the semantic unit was the sentence. These were logical chunks that were kept in the simplest form possible in the book. In Boycott, though, a much more challenging work because of its varied ideological content, the form attempts to respond to and bring out key dimensions of each statement. The twists and turns of the line breaks highlight different stress points in the statements, forcing pauses onto revealing ideas in the language of global boycott movements. It also, I suppose, registers my basic discomfiture with the language I was tracking and including in my own book. Some of the lines are very, very funny, but there is a basic advantage they are all based upon that I am happy to see broken up and disrupted.
TC: Is it true that actor Shia Labeouf plagiarized you in his defense of earlier charges of plagiarism? Have you ever plagiarized Shia Labeouf?
GB: Yes, rather brilliantly in fact, in the context of an interview in which he was expressing himself only through quotes. It was quite a performance, reminiscent of Echo struggling to speak in the words of Narcissus. Only, in this case, the part of narcissism was played by all of Hollywood itself. I have to admit that it was only after some editors on Reddit discovered the plagiarism that I learned who Labeouf was. The whole ordeal was strange and weird in the way that only LA/Hollywood can get. He flamed out, backtracked, and became an eccentricity in a lulled American moment.
Tom Cull: What is your earliest memory of writing creatively?
Gregory Betts: I mowed the lawn, but one day mowed around an especially tall dandelion. My parents made me go back and mow it too. I wrote a dirge elegizing the flower. Earnest, rhyming, and pitifully lost in expressing over-wrought emotion.
TC: As a child, did you read poetry? Was poetry a part of your childhood?
GB: Just the usual things—Dennis Lee, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss. In grade 1, I discovered the Greek myths and consumed them voraciously. I preferred novels and devoured the works of Marshall Saunders, James Herriott, and especially Richard Adams. When I was about 8 I switched over to more adult fare and ripped through Ken Follett, Dick Francis, Stephen King, Peter Straub, and the like. It was Robert Hunter, when I was 14, who turned me on to poetry. Ginsberg and Shelley became big influences at the outset.
TC: How did you become a writer?
GB: By publishing a book.
TC: Can you describe your writing process? How does revision figure into the process?
GB: I suspect I would do much better at this whole thing if I had a process. The only thing I focus on is the individual project and I try to do everything I can to fulfill its unique potential. I also make an effort to never write the same kind of book twice.
TC: What are you currently working on?
GB: Right now, I am just finishing up another collaboration with Gary Barwin, writing a book on the Vancouver avant-garde, editing a book of essays on Marshall McLuhan and Sheila Watson, finalizing a new scholarly edition of the first avant-garde novel in Canada, and digitizing the complete works of bpNichol.
RUSTY TALK WITH GREGORY BETTS
GREGORY BETTS'S MOST RECENT BOOKS
This Is Importance
Wolsak and Wynn, 2013
Description from the publisher
Poet, novelist and teacher Gregory Betts has an ear for a well-turned phrase and an eye for captivating errors. In this highly amusing collection, Betts has pulled together some of the best misinterpretations of literature that he has come across in his years of grading papers. With an introduction on the importance of learning through error in education and a full complement of confusions on authors, styles and the point of reading literature, this book will delight English teachers everywhere.
On Narrative Form
Characters are all born in literary Canada.
Rising Action is the period before the climax where there is a build-up to prepare the reader
for the ultimate high.
The narrator is bias.
All literary devices die.
The average reader expects grammar and punctuality in every sentence.
Female protagonists take no heed to spiritual warnings.
The story is so complicated, so devious, that nobody could possibly understand it, let alone
It is certain that there is no conclusion.
Writing is one way to control the truth.
An unreliable narrator is one whose recitation of the plot is strongly compromised because
of madness, blindness, or biasness.
The past tense represents an attempt to reflect on what has already happened to the narrator, such as future failure.
Realist writers have both feet grinding in the world.
Form causes everything.
The author speaks volumes in his novel.
The narrative is the experience of everything: everything that can happen.
A period in a sentence suggests death.
The poem begins with the poet’s language.
The poet attempts to salvage that which is beyond recovery.
Poetry has many complex dimensions: it can be revolting or disgusting.
Language makes the poem seem a certain way.
Seeing 4 lines per stanza makes you believe that it is a Quartrain.
Language is extremely useful to a writer.
A narrator is the unreliable voice inside a poem. We find this out at the very end.
Reading is a painful experience, although pleasurable.
Reading creates a sinister impression of the imagination.
Readers tend to miss the deeper meaning of a text because they tend to focus on me.
Profound Forisms I
The author uses a forism to express a commonly held belief.
Beauty is temporary therefore one should procreate.
Mortality is the result of time.
The alphabet has been a major influence on many poets.
In general, poets are striving to generate taboos.
When lust presents itself as attainable, desperate bachelors act on the opportunity.
Reality is hard to live in.
School makes men dream of war.
Homeless people are undeniably alive.
Most people do not know that they fear what they do not know.
We know nothing of reality.
In conclusion, it is always important to know which work is being read.
Children are a stigma of innocence.
There is never a situation where coherency can exist.
Death can be viewed as a bad position. Perhaps the worst.
Exposition is the future before the flashback.
Literature is a very important mode of transportation.
Marxism theories the text.
I get a shady feeling from story telling.
Most people worry about customized babies.
It is difficult to bomb someone softly.
Make Now Books, 2014
Boycott (Random Sample)
word boycott originated in Ireland during the “Land War” from
the name of Charles Boycott, the agent of British absentee
landlord, Earl Erne, who was subject to social ostracism
organized by Michael Davitt’s Irish Land League in 1880.
We must send a clear message that human death, ecosystem
destruction, and collateral damage are unacceptable in the pursuit
of oil. We must use our dollars to vote against this type of
Gosh forbid they should provide full-time employment with benefits or a decent
I hate Ohio so much I made a website.
I'm not the
kind of gal
but staying in Thailand makes no sense for anybody.
I’ll take a great beer over cannabis any day, but I will boycott
Belgium-owned Anheuser-Busch. I’m not going to Belgium any
I’m not going,
and I’m looking forward
to not going.
If you're from out of state, beware! Don't drive through Illinois.
It's a trap.
You Boycott Me
Will you boycott me upon reading this? will you boycott the response after reading
I don’t care if you boycott me, or curse me and cause me supreme amounts of pain. If
you boycott me, you are only hurting me. I will be forced to suffer the consequences.
You throw me in the middle of the ocean, force me to live with tigers.
Where is my rights to express my freedomness when you boycott me? An average guy
on an average wage? How cartel of you.
Actually, I prefer it. But tell the truth: You hate Americans, period. Just be honest
If you boycott me, I will boycott isreal, and I am serious about this. think about that
before you boycott me. Tit for tit. This is collectivism. I will not send you any
You boycott me. So at the end of it all. What really happens? Nothing.
Boycott Argentina for their sinful ways
Boycott Australia in retaliation for the country playing host
Boycott Austria and their tourist industry and buy your guns somewhere else
Boycott Bahrain? Boycott Oman? Boycott Iraq? Boycott Indonesia? Dream on... these
are American Client states. These are vital Customers
I say let's boycott Barbados altogether and all things Barbadian. And further
more, in protest, I refuse to even mention this nation by name
You say boycott Bolivia? How about the rest of the world boycott you?
I boycott you who boycott girls, without girls, you cannot exist
and I boycott you Canada!!!
Really, Pampers? Must I boycott you too?
I boycott you blog that is full of shit.
I boycott you because I hate ads that much.
I boycott you illiterate Facebook applications.
The reasons I boycott you? At first, it was simply because it was so hard.
Here’s my question: should I admire you for sticking to your unnecessary, overtly
sexual guns or should I boycott you because of, um, the same reasons?
How can I boycott you when I never darken your doors to begin with?
I boycott you Naomi Klein. This comment has received too many negative votes to
show. Click hide.
I boycott you because you are so ignorant that you are mixing art and politics
together. Get a crash course on Art 101!!
When Chavez is removed, then the boycott can end, but not
before. T-shirts till the end.
If heaven is a place on earth, hell is in Norway.
If it’s so great there, why do they speak Norwegian?
As Americans if we allow ourselves to be treated like offal by
these corporate tyranists then are we not also ready to accept
tyranny as our form of government?
Tom Cull lives in London, Ontario where he teaches in the English and Writing Studies Program at Western University. His chapbook, entitled What the Badger Said, was published in 2013 by Baseline Press.
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