Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Steve Venright

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Steve Venright

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. In this interview, students Nigel Feor and Nick speak with artist and writer Steve Venright (Floors of Enduring Beauty, Mansfield Press, 2007).

Nick:

Hello there, Steve. We both truly appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions; we hope you enjoy answering them as much as we do listening. I hope this doesn’t interfere with your other work, either recording a new song, taking or editing a photo, drawing, writing or what have you. By the way, I’ve (Nick) really researched your other works and wanted to let you know that I’m a big fan of your art, it’s quite inspiring. That aside, let’s get this interview started!

Steve Venright:

Dear Nick, That’s great to hear. I’m pleased and honoured by the attention you’ve shown to my various endeavours. I know already that I’ll enjoy answering the questions you and Nigel have come up with.

Nigel:

I noticed that you chose a rather unique name for your record label, Torpor Vigil. The name is somewhat paradoxical if taken in a literal sense, but I was wondering what could have inspired you to make such a choice?

SV:

The notion of “vigilant torpor” came to me after reading about a tragic but intriguing medical condition known as “coma vigil” in which the patient is in a state of complete bodily paralysis but still able to visually perceive his or her surroundings. It occurred to me that my most poetic states, with relation to writing, had been the result of physical languor combined with cognitive excitement. It had always been my habit, or ritual even, to write while lying down, opening my eyes just enough to see the words emerge on the page. (Yes, humans used to write on paper in the days before the Third Millennium, and some of us, at times, still do.) So I changed “coma vigil” to “torpor vigil,” and the significance of the concept has been gradually elaborating itself to me over the two-plus decades since.

One of my favourite torpor vigil analogies derives from the roles of the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic divisions of the Autonomous Nervous System: the former, to generalize, is excitatory (vigilant); the latter inhibitory (torpid). The merging of this yin-yang dichotomy occurs during orgasm. One of the most sublime and potentially creative experiential states is, then (to use your word) paradoxical. If Beauty, as André Breton observed, is “neither static nor dynamic,” then perhaps it is both at once: a violently entrancing union of extremes, an ecstasy of opposites united. There are times for torpor, and there are times for vigil, but for the most profound times there’s nothing like torpor vigil!

Another example of the term’s multivalent quality was revealed to me by a vampire acquaintance of mine who explained that “torpor vigil” referred, in the parlance of his breed, to the act of watching over the repose of the undead. That lends it millennial connotations of resurrection: whether you’re awaiting the waking/return of Nosferatu, Jesus Christ, Quetzalcoatl, King Arthur, Finnegan or Elvis, a faithful vigil must be kept to maintain the beliefs and to catch the signs.

Torpor Vigil Records is the currently active division of Torpor Vigil Industries, a condensed history of which (lifted from the TVR website) follows

Torpor Vigil Industries was founded in 1991 by Steve Venright. Initially established to produce original fine art prints and clothing, TVI soon diversified, materializing variously over the years as an organizer of literary salons, a purveyor of neurotechnology, an instigator of outlandish social manouevres, and — in the form of its popular Hallucinatorium — a psychedelic sideshow. Its most prominent and lasting manifestation came in 2000 with the inauguration of its record label division, which subsequently released acclaimed albums by singer-composer Samuel Andreyev and prodigious sleeptalker Dion McGregor. Following a hiatus of several years, the audio department of Torpor Vigil Industries was resurrected in 2012 as Torpor Vigil Records.

By the way, despite my friend’s suspicions, I’m not a creature of the night. And, from what I was given to understand, he practices his vampirism strictly among consenting adults. (That’s what they all say.)

Nigel:

The first volume of your poetry I was exposed to was Spiral Agitator. Not being a fan of poetry, my initial approach was far from optimistic. But I have to admit, the bell had rung before I’d realized just how engaged I was by the first few pages. Not long after that, my partner briefly lent me Floors of Enduring Beauty. I immediately noticed a change in style. While Agitator has a certain reserved flow, Enduring Beauty, right from the start, with “The Turbulated Curtain,” was much louder and almost violent. Quite exciting and fast paced. Enduring Beauty is your latest full volume since Spiral Agitator. In the time between the two, what caused you to take your style in this direction?

SV:

First of all, I’m extremely pleased to hear you got a charge off any of this stuff at all. It’s especially gratifying to hear such a perceptive take on it. For years now — reflecting on my own inspiring literary discoveries as a teenager — I’ve thought that the most satisfying result of my writing would be to have someone in, say Grade 12 or 13, stumble upon it and find it interesting. (Second most-satisfying would be if it landed in the hands of various world leaders and spontaneously transformed their ethos, thereby ushering in a new utopian era of life on earth.)

Sections of “The Turbulated Curtain” were among the first things I wrote after Spiral Agitator, and you’re right — there was a change in the way I was writing. I think what happened between those two books was that I became more interested in language itself than in whatever “content” it might convey. At the same time, I was being really open to whatever imaginary scenes came to mind. My tactic was to approach the act of writing as if it were a form of dreaming. I rarely know what I’m doing as a writer until I do it. There’s just a sense of curiosity and stimulation, an air of adventure, and I go with it. I try to have fun and never be bored by what I’m writing. At certain other times in my life, there’s been more gravity behind the impulse to write. As I get older, I seem to be more geared towards just having a blast with it. My instinct for humour took over during the writing of Enduring Beauty (or Floors, as I tend to call it.) Humour is one of our most transformational tools. If used just right it can be equally good for toppling oppressive regimes and breaking the ice at parties.

Just because something is humourous, it should be noted, doesn’t mean it isn’t “serious”. And despite my talking about having fun with the writing of Floors doesn’t mean that heavy issues of our times didn’t enter into it, one way or another: “The Turbulated Curtain” is partly, on one level, a response to the nightmare of 9/11 and what I viewed as the monumental lie behind the official story of how those events unfolded. (So don’t let nobody tell you I ain’t a serious writer, okay?)

Nick:

When reading your latest novel, Floors of Enduring Beauty, I found that there was a very interesting part of the book that you wrote your work in a list to gratification called “One Hundred and Seventeen Steps to Gratification” (pages 31-35) which really caught my eye and made it into the most part in the book. I thought that most of the lines you added in this section were comically entertaining either being completely absurd causing it to become witty. Some good examples in the text; “49. Cover chicken parts in lemon juice.” (pg. 32) or “88. Have your home tested for radon.” (pg. 34). All of the selected quotes are very simple, but all so sudden, critical and to the point. It was so unexpected. They were also different kinds of steps that you wrote that were very powerful and inspiring or common sense that I thought made it quite amusing to read. Some good examples that I discovered in this piece: “5. Give up expecting things from other people, or your life.” (pg. 31) or “101. Avoid slow-burning, smouldering fires.” (pg. 34). You had some things in this piece that even related to my own personal life, which really enthralled me. The last example was a perfect example of simple knowledge of good sense, which made it hilarious. For all of the steps you advised to your audience, how did those thoughts come to mind? Were they all from experience or was it just an intentional thought?

SV:

I confess: all those lines were stolen! Every now and then, I “write” a piece that’s composed of found material. This was the case with the glossary entries that concluded each of my books prior to Floors. I would flip through a small stack of dictionaries until alluring phrases appeared and attached themselves to other alluring phrases. By this process, I would arrive at a slew of outlandish definitions of things that, so far as I knew, didn’t exist. The following example, from Spiral Agitator, is an amalgam of phrases from six or seven unrelated dictionary descriptions: “a corpse suddenly reanimated by the spinning of a hollow rotor which produces a ringing sound when struck in a lavish or grand manner by a pompous, unintelligible official who tends a herd of animals unduly anxious about destroying harmful insects from another world.”

Another example of a case in which I lifted something from an outside source occurs in “The Turbulated Curtain.” There was a slogan on a subway poster ad for Jergens lotion that fit in beautifully with the convoluted abstract tone of my piece: “Moisturize into a firming glow.” I had to pilfer that! (Though I did acknowledge Jergens in the credits.)

In the case of “One Hundred and Seventeen Steps to Instant Gratification,” I worked backwards: all I had was the title. So I went searching for the body of the text via the worldwide web. Yes, I Googled the poem into being. Without changing a word, I extracted dozens and dozens of instructional phrases from random websites. From there on, it was a matter of assembling them into a sequence that made sense — or nonsense, if you prefer. The result — rather than the process, as with other pieces in the book — was dreamlike.

I’m curious to know whether my explanation has enhanced your enjoyment of the piece, or spoiled it, or neither. But then again, that’s none of my business!

Nigel:

From the time that you started, what changes have you observed in your writing style over the years? If any, did you initiate any of these changes?

SV:

Writers are what they read, to a great extent. The reason they read what they read is because it resonates with their own sensibility. It’s a feedback loop: an author’s sensibility is defined and refined by what she or he reads, which is largely determined by (in the younger writer) nascent inclinations and (in the older writer) an established worldview. Writers who’ve been at it for a while should remember to keep exploring work that will challenge, and thereby alter or strengthen, their entrenched ideas. When you’re a new writer, it’s the eureka moment you’re after: discovering a book that seems to come out of nowhere, is unlike anything you’ve known, and yet is so familiar it’s as if it were written specifically for you, and which you know is going to change everything.

When I was 17 I discovered the writings of the French Surrealists and the authors they extolled, such as Le Compte de Lautréamont, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. I spent a couple of years assimilating their work before the next big revelation came along in the form of fellow Southwestern Ontarian Christopher Dewdney, whose poetry propelled me into new linguistic and conceptual territory. This “process of illumination” went on from there, and it goes on today as I continue to encounter mind-altering publications by authors I’d overlooked. (And of course such catalytic forces don’t need to be authors: there have been many painters, filmmakers, comedians, architects and musicians, among others, whose output has informed the way I think and write. I suppose it would be pretty odd if that weren’t the case, right?)

This may be delusional, but I think that when I wrote Floors of Enduring Beauty I finally managed to distill my diverse sources of inspiration to the point where my work was my own. (In defence of my earlier work, however, I should say that I’ve always riffed on, rather than ripped off, my influences.) Looking back on that book now, it seems like a cross-section of the various ways I’d written in the past: trance delving, recombinant assemblage, pun-driven narration, etcetera. So it seems a good time to do something new. Or do the same thing better!

Note: I’ve answered the following related two questions as if they were one. Maybe I should have asked for clarification about whether I was to answer one or the other or both, but I’ve just gone ahead by answering a hybrid of the two (see “[1 and 2]” below).

Nick:

[1] When investigating your others works in art as a photographer, record engineer and visual artist, I established your talent as an entrepreneur as a true artist. All of your artistic works are masterpieces and I truly enjoyed inquiring your creations. Out of your four professions or hobbies, which would chose if you had to only perform one of them and why?

[2] As an artist, writer and musician, you are a true entrepreneur. Everyone enjoys more creativity. Would it be a good idea to have those three arts in a new project? Explain yes or no, and if so, which ideas would come to mind?

[1 and 2] When investigating your others works in art as a photographer, record engineer and visual artist, I established your talent as an entrepreneur as a true artist. All of your artistic works are masterpieces and I truly enjoyed inquiring your creations. Out of your various professions or hobbies, which would you chose if you had to only perform one of them and why? Also, do you think it would be a good idea to combine some of them in a new project?

SV:

Going from one discipline to another can potentially diminish your ability to excel at any one — the jack-of-all-trades but-master-of-none syndrome. But what you gain from working in each medium can be transferred to the others, and shifting from one pursuit to another can be a beneficial distraction. I find it necessary to step back from a project in order to let it breathe and to acquire a new perspective on it. Sometimes going from one literary project to another can provide those results, but other times I get more out of jumping to a different form. Now and again, the multiple pursuits dovetail on a given project, as with the new album by Samuel Andreyev that I released on Torpor Vigil Records. In that case I’d worked closely with Sam on production, had written about the recording, had done original photocollages and design, made a promo video, etcetera. That’s not quite the multi-media synthesis you had in mind when asking the question. Something like that might lie ahead for me. I have a draft of a screenplay I’d like to develop further. It incorporates a number of original songs and instrumentals. I’m very specific about much of the imagery in the script, so that’s another element in place. But— barring a significant influx of cash to pick up where I left off— it might be a long time before that one sees the light of day.

As for what mode of creation I would choose if I were limited to one thing, there’s no doubt. Maybe my answer would be different if I could go into a studio whenever I wanted, and if my own musical talents were more advanced. And I’d hate to do without the enthralling satisfaction (on those rare occasions when I get it right) of making visual images. But sound and vision are major reasons why I write, and they can to some extent be suggested in words. So I would go with my first love, which is writing. And now that you’ve asked me these superb and insightful questions about my writing, and caused me think about what and why I write, I really feel like doing some more of it! Most of the writing I’ve done these past five-and-a-half years since Floors came out has been (apart from that script I mentioned) non-fiction, journal entries, and correspondence. Now I’m looking forward to making some time, amid all my work on the record label and all my shifts as a waiter (what I’ve done for a living since the week I turned nineteen), for some poetic explorations and adventures.

“The world is made of language,” proclaimed Terence McKenna. We’re helping to create that world with everything we write and say. Let’s make it a good one!

__________________________________


Steve Venright is a visual artist and writer whose books include Straunge Wunder (Tortoiseshell & Black, 1996), Spiral Agitator (Coach House Books, 2000) and Floors of Enduring Beauty (Mansfield Press, 2007). Through his Torpor Vigil record label he has released several remarkable recordings, including The Tubular West by Samuel Andreyev and The Further Somniloquies of Dion McGregor: More Outrageous Recordings of the World’s Most Renowned Sleeptalker. Steve was born in Sarnia, Canada in 1961. At the age of 20 he crossed the plains of Southwestern Ontario and has resided in Toronto ever since. For more, visit Steve’s personal website and The Torpor Vigil Records website.


In Greek, Nicholas means “victory of the people.” However, this isn’t the Saint Nicholas who delivers gifts to children on the night of Christmas Eve across the globe. This Nicholas is an average human being that lives in Toronto. His early childhood was spent in the suburban area of Markham until he was six years old. His parents were split up before he could even speak, but once his mother met another, we all moved to the area in Toronto called Riverdale, a few subway stops away from heart of the city. Nicholas prefers to be called Nick, not because it is more of a composed name but rather is easier for him to be said and heard. Nick is a musician, who enjoys to play, listen, and produce music. He is very interested in all kinds of urban art and culture. Nick usually spends his time with his friends, playing, practicing or discovering new music, or eating noodles.


Casual world traveller and aspiring artist, Nigel Feor’s existence could be likened to that of a jellyfish: carried by the current of life to various places and only stirring from meditation in order to obtain sustenance. His mindset is so simplistic, were he to wake up one morning not as a boy, but as a cat, he probably wouldn’t notice, or care. Art and writing are the two things, for reasons unknown, that can pull development and growth from this specter-like organism. Similar minds and pleasant conversation produce warm reactions and somehow give greater substance to his being. If one wanted to catch Nigel, his preferred bait is coffee and video games, though music and chocolate would work just as well.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page