Wanda Praamsma, author of a thin line between, sat down with Steven Ross Smith to discuss his latest book.
Wanda Praamsma: Could you tell me about your Fluttertongue project? Why did you want to create a long ‘life-poem’ and how does Emanations fit in?
Steven Ross Smith: I didn’t think of this as a life-long poem in the beginning—or maybe I still don’t, because its content doesn’t really trace my life. I have lived with the fluttering since the 1990s, and my life is quite a bit longer than that. But then, some of the poems in the first book were written in the mid-1970s and late ’80s. What compelled me as I was working on the first book, which became Fluttertongue 1: The Book of Games, was a realization that whatever I was doing with poetry really had just one predominant, propelling impetus, and that was composing language. I had published three poetry books by that time, but had not seen my work in this ‘new’ way, so it was kind of a revelation. I was very aware of bpNichol’s The Martyrology—his 9-book work (some published posthumously) referred to as a life-long poem—so I suspect that that was a model. Though I knew bp and had many conversations with him, I don’t know if his impetus to use a subtitle was the same as mine (I published the first Fluttertongue ten years after bp’s passing.)
With each of the Fluttertongues there is a different compositional mode or problem or strategy at work. I don’t repeat a method from one book to the next; I try to find a new problem or challenge to respond to with language. As well, my primary interest is not in exploring the ‘I’—that ‘I’ being me, though of course I am there in the poems because I wrote them. I try to let language lead, to get the ego out of the way, to not have intention with the content… but that is, I guess, an intention. But poetry is full of conundrums and compromise, isn’t it? Emanations: Fluttertongue 6 is obviously the sixth book in the series. It ‘fits’ because it is another compositional mode jumping away from or beyond or behind the previous book, which was a series of prose poems about anything and everything along with an underlying rolling text about moss. But with each piece in Fluttertongue 5: Everything Appears to Shine with Mossy Splendour I was working to explore poetic and narrative possibilities—the torque of the prose line and the leaping narrative possibilities, along with a relatively straight ahead document about sexy moss. I was absorbed, in that book and in the previous two Fluttertongues, with multiple and embedded texts. In a way, Emanations takes a simpler approach, a return to free verse form, working with poems that emanate from other poets’ poems, poets and poems that attract me, often, but not always poets I know personally.
I keep thinking that maybe ‘this one’ will be the last Fluttertongue, but I’ve been thinking that since Fluttertongue 4: Adagio for the Pressured Surround. Right now, I think there might be one more, but I’m not sure. I don’t want to get predictable or to fall into a rut. The next work or any after that will have to be viewed (by me) as fitting this mode of compositional exploration in order to be called a Fluttertongue.
WP: All this fluttering—wings going, words joining, pace deepening—how do you catch all this, get it down? I am imagining your mind’s innards—the speed and periods of slow. What is your process like?
SRS: Ha-ha. My mind’s innards might be a strange place… or maybe a boring one. But I try to let language take over my mind, to let words play, to let them associate and dissociate, to let them leap and fall, to let them collide, to let them chime… I try to get my mind out of the way, though of course language is in the mind. But it is also in the body. I really believe that poetry is physical—physical energy liberated though these symbols we call language. I try to make the poetic line physical.
WP: I’m looking at your poem “Lurch,” and its back-and-forth form. Could you talk about the writing, and shaping, of this poem in particular?
SRS: “Lurch” had an interesting ‘growth’ with lots of attention and revision and techniques applied to it, and I don’t even remember any more what it looked like early on. But I began accumulating associative vocabulary around the words and lines in the early draft. Sometimes I went with sonic links, sometimes I applied the Oulipo ‘n+7’ method, and I also used methods I don’t recall now. As I was moving words, deleting, adding, thumbing the dictionary, and the ‘beach and wave’ image (which was there early on) kept insisting itself, I thought of swaying the poem down the page kind of the way a floating item will get pushed up and down and side to side by ocean waves at tide time (or by boat wash). So I rendered the poem that way; it swayed back and forth down the page. But my editor, Phil Hall, suggested that that form and appearance was a big departure from the ‘look’ of the rest of the poems in the collection. So I revisited, and wanting to keep the motion, the buffeting, the lurching, I came up with the final shape and positioning for the poem. As this is Fluttertongue 6, I broke the poem into six line stanzas and justified them, alternately, left and right, keeping a flow, a lurch. I like to read it like a rushing chant.
WP: You’re primarily a sound poet, and gathering musicians and poets has been a focus in your life. What happens when these people get together? Has this happened with Fluttertongue?
SRS: Well, my ‘best’ years as a sound poet may be behind me. Working with Owen Sound—Richard Truhlar, Michael Dean, and Dave Penhale—in the ’70s & ’80s was terrific. We pushed our envelopes of comfort and fear and influence and knowledge, and performed sound and action poetry in various configurations. Then when I moved to Saskatoon—to get out of Toronto’s ‘fast lane’—eventually I found some musicians who were willing to work in both scored and improvised collaborative forms, and I carried on my oral/sound explorations with them for about another decade. I also performed solo sound too during that time. But I love working collaboratively and pushing the edges. I haven’t had opportunities to perform collaboratively now for over a decade. I do still perform the odd sound poem solo, but often I voice historic ones and not the ones I’ve written. Like any instrument you have to keep playing to keep limber. I’ll need to get my lips, throat, and tongue limber once again to really get back into that realm. Nonetheless, my work with sound/action/music performance has definitely influenced my aesthetic approach to poetry. When I create for the page, sound is most important to me and I am almost always thinking sonically; that is, how the poem will sound aloud, because really, I think that poetry is an oral art. The page is just a record. Speaking the poem brings it to life most vitally.
I like to think that, in Fluttertongue, I’m jamming with language, with all my past performer-collaborators wailing behind me.
WP: You bring in The Poet—hero-poet, poet-dreamer, poet-fearful—in third person. I am curious about your vision of the poet in the world. What is the poet’s role—your role? And what are the struggles/joys?
SRS: Yes, I do bring the poet into the poems sometimes. I think that’s just me reflecting on my process, and to a point making the process visible.
It’s hard to say what the poet’s role is in the world, given that poetry receives so little attention in the mass cultural market place—yet it thrives. I can only speak personally. For me, composing language, working the materiality of language, is my main concern. I like to have fun with language, even when I’m serious. I like to stretch beyond my daily thinking. I like to find new challenges. I disregard any notion of a formula for a poem. Each poem defines a formula and it might be unfamiliar. I like unfamiliarity, chance, imperfection, leaping. Yet I’m always aware that I am writing while many voices are speaking—a community of poets, both living and gone. Poetry is a current running through time and I’m there in that current in my small boat, with my sail fluttering. I try to honour that the best way I can.
The struggle is to get the poem right, or to find the right shape for a whole manuscript, and sometimes that happens; the joy is most intense when I do feel I’ve nailed it. And there is the joy of feeling a part of the community of poets and understanding that there is something special that we all share, that connects us, and that may be beyond dailiness, beyond language.
Steven Ross Smith is a sound and performance poet, as well as a writer of fiction and lyric poetry. He has served as publisher/editor at Underwhich Editions, business manager of Grain magazine, managing editor for Banff Centre Press, and as editor of the online magazine Boulderpavement. He has been publishing books since the 1970s, and was a member of the legendary sound poetry group Owen Sound. Smith’s book fluttertongue 3: disarray won the 2005 Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award. The chapbook Pliny’s Knickers, a collaboration between Smith, poet Hilary Clark, and artist Betsy Rosenwald, won the 2006 bpNichol Chapbook Award. In 2008, he became Director of Literary Arts at The Banff Centre, where he served until February 2014. Smith currently lives in Banff, Alberta. Connect with Smith at www.fluttertongue.ca or on Twitter @SonnyBoySmith.
Wanda Praamsma grew up in the Ottawa Valley in Clayton, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds, and Feathertale, and several literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in The Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She has worked, studied, and lived at various points in Salamanca, Spain, Santiago, Chile, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and has travelled to many places in between and beyond, including Cuba, India, and the Balkans. Praamsma currently lives in Kingston, Ontario. Her debut poetry book, a thin line between, was published by BookThug in 2013. Find Praamsma at www.whywandawrites.com or connect with her on Twitter @wpraamsma