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Aaron Peck and Meredith Quartermain in Conversation

The following interview was first published on the Greenboathouse Books website.  Aaron Peck is the author of Three Pieces of Glass (Above Ground) and Twilight Suites (Greenboathouse).  He is also the poetry editor at Greenboathouse Books and the editor of Doppelganger, an on-line journal of art and literature.


Aaron Peck:
I've read in West Coast Line that you studied and practised law prior to your life in poetry. How did this shift occur? And do you see these two practices as parallel or continuous?

Meredith Quartermain:
Actually, my life in poetry began when I was 16 with the discovery of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" and other poems. I started scribbling things as a teenager, eventually got to UBC and took literature courses, discovered Creeley's For Love while I was on a summer job on a fire look-out -- started writing things in notebooks. I had a rather unconventional upbringing. I started to write that out -- everything I could remember -- to try to make sense of it. I had no idea of being a writer. A writer was someone who lived in England or maybe the States, someone who was well off, who didn't have to work for a living. And then Canadian literature -- the sense that Canadians could make their own stories, poetry -- was just being invented while I was at UBC. But I was driven to write what I had lived through in my first 20 years. So by the time I'd got my Master's in English (Language), I was trying to write out experiences in a language evolved from Creeley, Shelley, and others I'd discovered I liked -- Williams and Duncan, eventually Daphne Marlatt, especially Ana Historic.

In 1985 Colin Browne, who had started the Kootenay School of Writing, organized The New Poetics Colloquium at the Emily Carr College of Art. I can still see and hear Bruce Andrews reading at that Colloquium "I Guess Work The Time Up":

         Apart meant     -- licking stick good golly         If body language counterfactual       Brittle treble now . . .

We had in Vancouver at that Colloquium Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Daphne Marlatt, Nicole Brossard, and a number of others from a most outstanding group of writers who were just establishing themselves as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. I was blown away by it. I interviewed Marlatt and Browne for a CBC program called Monitor. I began writing collaged pieces revelling in the pleasure of sound and texture. Some pieces were published in Writing Magazine. But I'd been unable to get a teaching position. I'd been trying to freelance but that wasn't working, so I headed off to law school in the fall of '86. I had no idea what I was in for -- which was boot camp, basically. Unfortunately, I was good enough at it that I got hooked.

By that time, I knew I wanted to write, be part of a literary community. So I kept on trying to write mainly fiction over the next seven years of law school, articling and practice. I kept up a secret life at night after work. When the partnership of the law firm I was with broke up in '93, I was out of a job again, but I was free. I landed a teaching job at Capilano College and turned fully toward literature and writing. In '95 I went to the Naropa University Summer Writing Program. The faculty that week included Norma Cole, Barbara Guest, Robin Blaser, David Bromige and Rosmarie Waldrop. These writers taught me a great deal. Waldrop showed us procedural techniques from the Oulipo group to find the sparks that made "the splice of life." Norma Cole told me to photocopy pages from my favorite texts and delete words until I had poetry. Do it again and again with the same pages over a ten-day period. I had the tools, then that would let me begin my Thesaurus project -- The Book of Words -- my chapbooks Abstract Relations and Spatial Relations come from this. My answer to Zukofsky's Dictionary work. I've just completed a third section: Matter. Six sections of this have been published in Ecopoetics 2 (fall 2002).

Robin Blaser once said I was a terrorist with language. I'd been cinched by The Law and the law of corporate hierarchies in law firms. I'd also been cinched by the law of conventional essay-writing, conventional English usage -- the deployment of words in ready-made forms with the assumption that words must always be used to refer to things or ideas, as though they didn't have a myriad nuances and textures that have nothing to do with reference. I wanted to bust loose. Into compositions that foregrounded consonance, assonance, rhythm, connotations -- compositions that downplayed reference. In the last year or so, I've been moving into various other territories, including writing about some of the experiences I had while working in a law firm. Some of those pieces will be appearing in West Coast Line's fall 2002 issue. Constitutional law is my favorite area of law -- I'd like to explore that in poetry.

Here’s the only poem where I've explicitly dealt with law:

The Law

The Law
is what we assume
is the rule
which rules out the possible.

The Law is the rule of impossible.
Possible can never happen.

The Law
is the assumption of the law
into heaven
to preside on high
as the Law of Below
that here
there is no heaven
that heaven is up there
with the Law.

For granted, we take
the law of the Law
For granted, we are
the Doctor of the Law
the Future of the Law
the Fear of the Law

We take pills
take billboards
take jogging
take shopping carts
the Law of cohering
the Law of repeating the Law
of Suzie repeating Suzie
repeating the Law of Suzie
Assiduous Suzie
A lawn

Outside the impossible
is the possible sunshine.
The impossible rains.
And legal loopholes
for longer sentences
to untie the rails of law.


Aaron Peck:
I really enjoyed reading “The Law” – and bringing poems in is a great way to break the confines of an interview, a way of escaping what you called the “digital overtones” of the name Exact Change. Regardless my next question is in two parts (ah such journalese!). The first part is more of a response than a question. You mentioned having had an unconventional upbringing. What I found interesting about this is that you related it to language—more specifically to writing. I too had quite an unconventional upbringing and it led in my teens to the writings of Attar, specifically, Conference of the Birds, in some horribly stilted translation, long before I had any sense of literature or writing other than that which was boringly taught in school (one of the negative effects of the creation of Canadian literature!). You stated that writing started as a way to try to make sense of your upbringing. In some ways, this reminds me of Fanny Howe’s essay “Bewilderment or Incarnation and the Author,” which appeared in Raddle Moon 18. Writing, says Howe, relates to the “double bind” of bewilderment, which develops in the writing out of one’s past (whether fictional or actual). I feel I should stop here to clarify: I don’t mean this in a naïve way. This process is not diaristic or confessional and it bears little referent to any direct expression or such things. Rather, what I found interesting about this, in terms of your previous response, is that you imply reading is also central to that process—that it was in finding out, through the work of others how one can negotiate the self in the world and in language simultaneously. That self and other, language and the world share a matrix. And that language, as a starting point, contains more than meaning—rather it spills, to quote your response, overflows with “consonance, assonance, rhythm, connotations — [in] compositions that downplay reference” and create a fuller, more physical reading. This sense of a fuller, more physical and less referential reading does something too that I find very interesting. It creates a sense of bewilderment in the reader—an astonishment within language itself. A lot of criticism and theory often talks of “indeterminacy” although “bewilderment” feels closer to my own reading. Bewilderment, enchantment, astonishment, again to echo Robin Blaser, are some of the effects I feel when reading your work.

Your work-in-progress — The Book of Words — which to date is comprised of Abstract Relations and Spatial Relations uses classification structure of Roget’s Thesaurus, as you have said, “as a way of rethinking, imagining, language.” Do you find the act of writing and reading as tied to a kind of bewilderment? In turn, also, if concepts such as bewilderment, enchantment or astonishment figure into this “rethinking or imagining, language?” Could you say a little about The Book of Words, some of the specific ways in which Roget’s Thesaurus is used? And how to you came to it?

Meredith Quartermain:
We're just back from Seattle where we went to the SAM to see Frida Kahlo and Do-Ho Suh. Kahlo's work I find tremendously inspiring for its visionary quality and its refusal to get caught up in the school of social realism. Suh is an ex-Korean who does conceptual art, some of the pieces quite stunning. For instance, one piece consists of a huge expanse of glass plates which you walk on. They are raised about three inches off the floor. You think at first they've been painted on the underside in thousands of dots of brown, grey-green, ochre, beige, white -- a sort of camouflage pattern. Then you look more closely and discover the "dots" are the hands of thousands of tiny pvc figurines holding up the glass.

I'm glad you reminded me to read this issue [Raddle Moon 18], especially the pieces by Christine Stewart and of course Fanny Howe. I have for some time been keeping in mind Duncan's advice to write into what you don't know. I was even surprised that Howe mentioned a "point" in her poems, though to be sure within quotes. Clarice Lispector has been another guide here: "Since one feels obliged to write, let it be without obscuring the space between the lines with words." She talks of fishing with words for the unword. And then George Bowering's comment that if you write what you know you'll go on knowing the same thing forever! I had to put that on the website. Bewilderment is something I work with and value enormously. A few of my favorite bits from the Howe essay: (1) comparison of the tale of Midas to the act of naming; (2) the force of grammar in tenses, propositions, adverbs that poets work against to "unsay" what is said; (3) "Every experience that is personal is an experience that is supernatural" which I take to be an essential feature of Robin Blaser's practice; (4) that there is no room for monolithic answers in bewildered poetry; (5) that the spiral, serial nature of poetry involves dervish whirling, "sublimation, inversion, echolalia, digressions, glossolalia and rhymes" (sound, sense, structural, syntactic rhymes) (5) the whole emergence as in a darkroom bath of the poem writing itself. Tapping into what is eternal -- the immaterial matter.

The Book of Words began by accident, the title being a translation of "Thesaurus". My husband had obtained a scholarship for a month at Bellagio, the Rockefeller Foundation villa in Italy. I had no "project," but for some unknown reason I lugged over to Italy an old paperback edition of Roget's Thesaurus and about six notebooks of recorded dreams. I thought since Zukofsky had done the dictionary, I'd have to find some other wordbook, so I chose the Thesaurus. I then began weaving bits of the dreams into word lists from the thesaurus. Words thus dislocated became strangely powerful -- spell-like. Spatial Relations explores much of what Howe calls "sublimation, inversion, echolalia, digressions, glossolalia and rhymes" without reference, as its opening poem announces. What fascinated me too was that Roget had decided to classify all the words in the language into a set of charts, boiling down all the categories into six key ones: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, Affections. I'm still amazed at this move. Couldn't you start with any six categories? And what sort of taxonomy would that lead to? How far taxonomies are from life of words or birds! In Matter, I began to explore taxonomy as such, especially in the light of Darwin's Origin of Species.

Bewilderment in the sense of dislocating phrases and words from their assumed utilitarian contexts continues to be important in my writing practice. I get suspicious of glue words like prepositions and very suspicious of any sort of propositional logic. I find myself asking questions more and more. Misreading, quite deliberately allowing my eye to read slant, read vertical, invert letters, misspell, is also part of my bewilderment. This was how I scooped phrases from Darwin. However, each section of The Book of Words evolves its own structure and strategies. In Spatial Relations, each piece invents a different approach to the word lists it is working with, so the forms are quite different from piece to piece. In several of them I found various texts into which I would drop words from Roget. Thus "Existence in Space" drops in words from I think the category "dwelling" into a fragment of a play by Euripedes. "Human Infusoria" uses Plato's cave myth. "Immaculate Conception" uses a passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. "Breadth" uses a 19th century handbook for letter-writing. But "Linearity" involves a syntactic forward flow -- a form of linearity. In Matter I found myself focussing on fragments from Darwin's text and cross-breeding them with phrases and words from Roget's Matter section. The piece evolved (ha) into a challenge to social Darwinism, i.e. the law of extinction. The bewilderment here is frenzied, a search for what matters.

I still think your piece "A man reconsiders his relationship to language" [in Twilight Suites] is stunning. Very much concerned with bewilderment, one of my favorite lines being "resolution is a failure of the mind". I'd like to know more about your compositional process if you'd care to tell.

Aaron Peck:
Thanks for the words on Twilight Suites. My own compositional practice is still in flux (as it should be!) I’ve been doing a lot of syntax/grammar translations of other works, one which is based on George Oppen's Of Being Numerous and also responds to reading AntiMemoirs by Andre Malraux.

I wrote Twilight Suites some years ago, and I don’t fully remember everything I was thinking at the time. In the second part, which you've mentioned, I was attempting to respond to reading Oppen's poem "Leviathan." Among other things. Also I was trying to shift the voice with every line/dash. The first part takes a number of words and images and places them in various contexts, so I hope the text has the feeling of movement within the images and words, as it is a meditation in some senses on the relationship between stasis and movement, how one moment relates, informs and layers others. This is doubled by a number of the other concerns in the piece.

You must tell me more about your "suspicion" of prepositions. I've always found them dangerous but intriguing because they are dangerous. As a connective would you say they are more hypotactic or paratactic? I find them intriguing because the way in which they spatialize a sentence. The way in which they conceptualize the language spatially. I think there's a danger to them but that danger makes them fascinating.

Meredith Quartermain:
My doubts about them now are that they close things down because they are hypotactic. They pin down the relationships between juxtaposed thoughts, images. Close off ironies, duplicities. I don't think I can read them paratactically, but it would be interesting to try.

Aaron Peck:
Earlier this week I noticed my mother had tried to print something out of her computer and there was an error in the sizing of the print. I began reading the text vertically and found the following poem. The source is some Middle Eastern mystical text, I think. Since you included “The Law” I thought I’d add a piece I’m working on too. The piece reads as follows:

Those days
in no wise
Niyavaran, whose
and in chains
man, accomplished
being hurried
for four months
this Wronged
narrow pit we
the places of
thieves, assassins


Meredith Quartermain:
Yes, this is a haunting little piece. We create disturbances in the wind or the words, like the gestures of handwriting that carry our stamp unawares.

It occurred to me today that we are all writing in a way that we cannot clearly see -- since we are too close to the weaving of it to see the texture. Stein's idea of composition composed by the era..

Aaron Peck:
I think that lack of clarity, that closeness is part of writing’s richness. The discovery involved and the moments afterward paradoxically afford something like clarity – when I can sit back and see a little more clearly what I was up to – but during process there is no time. Yes this is definitely a part of Stein in this. Today as I was walking I was thinking of “Composition as Explanation”: “No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept.” I couldn’t remember those words at the time so I was thinking more vaguely about the essay. I just looked the lecture up and re-read that.

Even the one creating her time cannot be aware of it, because she is too busy creating it to think if she is in time.

So before we complete this little exchange (ha!) I wanted to ask you a little about Eye-Shift of Surface, your new Greenboathouse title. The text deals with the permutations of “I” and “eye,” exploring “abbreviations, roots, utterances, grammar,” as you said when I asked for some words for the CIP blurb. It made me think a lot about the relationship between certain forms of poetry, grammar and subjectivity. Where we weave what’s unaware. How and why does Eye-Shift negotiate these concerns? I wondered if this was a major concern when writing, and how you wrote the piece

Meredith Quartermain:
In the late 20th century, one of the insults hurled at poetry was the label “confessionalism.” This seemed to be aimed at writers from the 70’s and their followers who unabashedly sprinkled through their work the ninth letter of the alphabet, capitalized or uncapitalized (a term that today mainly refers to the accounting status of equipment in one’s corporation), as they wrote about quote unquote personal experience. Confessionalists, the critics said, naively believed in romantic notions of the soul and personal identity – the unified self separate from society, separate from all other selves. Whereas, in fact, the critics said, the self is a social construct implanted in human flesh by a series of social institutions. The self is a medley of discourses carried out on behalf of the state and social institutions such as the family. There is no I, but rather a myriad of I’s, chattering away the texts already formulated by the social grammar. Moreover, these same social institutions have an interest in maintaining our addiction to a phantom I, a prosthetic I, so that we imagine ourselves heroes in a narrative of life in which we have real choices. Blithely unaware, of course, that the choices have already been scripted, just as surely as Hollywood movies have been edited to smooth out and remove any discrepancies between one point of view and another, between the narrative of the Untouchable and the narrative of the Brahmin, between narratives of narrative.

One of the results of the confessionalism slur was that poets started removing the word I from their work. As though simply removing the word could change the grammar of the conversation. At the same time, so-called “identity politics” emerged and rapidly attracted its own slur. Identities in narratives hitherto untold, hitherto deleted from the imperial one-voice-for-all of colonized peoples, became the focus of much writing in the 80’s and 90’s. A kind of superproliferation of I’s. During a brief spate of post-colonialism experienced by people in former British colonies, writers claimed narratives outside or counter to the imperial one. But then this was subsumed in the imperialism of global capital, which, so the critics say, is only too keen to use these identity narratives for its own ends. The liberated I – a hoax once more.

Perhaps now we can only write of the experience of language – the experience of this chattering of discourses running hither and thither through our brains and bodies – the experience of arbitrary grammar in social relations – a grammar of global capital and the master narrative of capitalism. There is something in us that experiences. Some have called it desire.

Against all of this, I set out to explore the word I and its intimate connection to eye.