Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Jason Christie

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Unknown Actor

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, Malvern Collegiate students Penelope Plessas and Laura Maier speak with poet and editor Jason Christie (Unknown Actor, Insomniac Press, 2013).

Penelope Plessas & Laura Maier:

Hello Jason! Our names are Penelope Plessas and Laura Maier, and we are so excited to have the amazing opportunity of interviewing you. We really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to participate in our project. After reading your books, Canada Post and i-ROBOT, we both really enjoyed them and couldn’t wait to interview you.

Jason Christie:

Hi Penelope and Laura! I’m so happy you enjoyed the books. i-ROBOT is my favourite by a small margin, but don’t tell anyone. Thank you very much for your questions. They are all fantastic and gave me lots to think about. I hope my answers provide some insight into poetry and being a poet.

PP & LM:

Speaking of Canada Post, we noticed how you seemed to lack a digital footprint, besides a Twitter, which kind of fits in with the title of Canada Post, leading us to believe you’re more conventional and perhaps prefer paper over digital. As a pre-interview question, might this be true?

JC:

That’s a great question. As a bibliophile, I do prefer paper to digital when it comes to reading poetry but I prefer digital to paper when it comes to writing poetry. Paper will always hold its attraction for me because it provides a singular, focused and intentional interaction with writing. As we move more and more into the ephemeral world of the digital, the cloud, the Internet we lose the tactile connection that comes along with holding something in your hands, feeling the breeze from the pages turning. There is an intimacy with language that doesn’t translate well to the fragmented scissions of online life.

I think I most enjoy experiencing the duration of time passing as measured by turning pages when reading a book published on paper. The digital experience can be wonderful in its own timelessness or incorporeality and many poets that I know are engaging with it in exciting, exhilarating ways but I’m interested in how a book can circumscribe a limited interaction with language, almost as if the physical object itself were a critique of the idea of limitlessness or post-scarcity.

I’ll suggest that perhaps it is becoming more conventional to have a digital footprint, to engage with the digital as a concept and to embrace limitlessness as a guide for praxis than it is to try to be small, singular and local. I tend to shy away from fads and trends and to attempt to write poetry that operates around attempting to understand my subject position relative to language. My new book scratches around the idea of an online presence necessitating a kind of theatrical involvement that exists like a phantom doppelganger. It’s fascinating that we’ve involved ourselves in this strange social experiment between the physical body and the virtual manifestation of a mind. In some ways this exercise in which you and I are engaged mirrors the experience of online/digital interactions. For all you know, I could have had my interviewbot answer your questions! I didn’t though (or did I?). Bleep. Blort. Bloop…

PP:

I noticed that you were a manager of Creative and Interactive Development for four years as well as a technical writer for two years. Do you believe that these unique experiences pushed you away from the more technical aspect of writing and towards paper? Or was publishing poetry novels always a dream of yours?

JC:

Writing poetry has always been an integral part of my life and my dreams. I’ll structure my response with the following caveats.

1. I have always tried to have a pragmatic view of the world. Writing poetry was never going to be a way to survive.

There were a few years while I was in high school and university that I thought I could survive on the money that I made from being a writer. I spent a long time believing that I just had to find the right combination of ideas that would rocket me to fame and fortune.

Upon further reflection, and a reality check, it became clear to me that there was no realistic way to make a living from poetry. The world is not waiting for the next great Canadian poet. In a lot of ways it was an immense relief. Turning away from thinking of poetry as a market or business liberates poets from a debt to sales, to transactional thinking, networking and marketing. Essentially the fact that there is no mass audience waiting means we can write whatever we want without worrying about our next meal.

Having said all of that, I’m about to wander up to the line of contradicting myself!

2. I believe a writer should work in some capacity that is not directly related to their creative writing. I have always had to work in some capacity outside of creative writing and I think it has made me a more responsible poet, it has brought me into contact with people who have zero interest in reading poetry and that has been extremely helpful for grounding my writing in reality. Some of the best feedback I’ve received has come from coworkers who have actively avoided poetry.

LM:

Your style is very distinct, and your books contain a mix of short and long poems. They all contrast well and present something I’d consider different, as most poems and poetry books either contain mainly medium, long, or short length poems, but not a mix of them. Do you have any kind of inspiration from poetic canon? What aspect of traditional literary canon would you align your poetry with?

JC:

That’s a great question and an interesting observation. I am always curious about the forms a poem can take. Perhaps it is as a result of my ADD, but I need to push against set forms, play with them, to question why I’m using them, or simply to find a fresh perspective on a particular problem I’m writing through.

I would align my poetry with the avant-garde tradition as expressed through early 20th Century French poetry. I am very interested in prose poetry and have found inspiration in Max Jacob’s writing as well as the poems of Francis Ponge. I would also align the theoretical interests that inform my writing with that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers from the United States and Canada in the 1970s such as Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian and Steve McCaffery. I’m also influenced by French literary and cultural theory from the late 20th Century.

LM:

In i-ROBOT, the poem “Digging up the Dead,” to me, appears to be a kind of satirical take on the abortion debate, and when a human stops being a possible human and becomes a full person. “When is a robot really a robot? Is it at the point of manufacture or the point of activation?” the poem goes, highlighting the main issue we face with debating this ourselves. It ends with “Now they are fervently opposed to keeping robots dormant in a precognitive state and maintain that it is cruel to not activate robots that are clearly ready for activation.” Do you agree with that, or is it just the robots agreeing with that? Do you put your opinions in the things you write, or write non-biased?

JC:

Well, I’m going to have to play the poet card here and answer in a non-direct, semi-helpful way. Is it possible to write anything that is non-biased or is that a self-congratulatory belief based upon our desire for authority? Satire is one of our most useful tools for deflating structures of thinking that bear the mark of approval of a cultural authority or state. I mean almost everything that I write in one way or another but I’ll never hold a poem hostage to an idea or shackle creativity to a kind of bare necessity in an attempt to appear wise or to prove a point. The world is too full of that kind of thing.

PP:

I read that you wrote poems for both Canada Post and i-ROBOT at the same time. What aspects of these poems made you decide to put them in one book or the other?

JC:

They were originally all in Canada Post but as I prepared that book for publication I realized that the poems with robots in them weren’t really fitting with the other poems and I pulled them out at the last minute. I didn’t know what to do with the robot poems and I couldn’t stop writing them. All of the robots in my life were clamouring for my attention! The Blu Ray player kept flashing this plaintive message: please … wait … please … wait … and so I did.

One night at a reading for the launch of the Post-prairie Anthology in Calgary, I read some of the robot poems and there just happened to be a publisher in the audience named Brian Hades who asked me afterward if I was working on a book of them. It hadn’t really occurred to me until that point that I had enough material to put out a book focused entirely on robots. It was a dream come true.

LM:

I noticed a lot of poems in i-ROBOT are rather humorous or have a humorous tone to them. For example, I laughed when I reached the end of the poem “Insane Aslyum.” After finishing explaining all the complicated issues with the robot and the procedure they should take, the doctor turned to the assistant and said: “I’ll buy you lunch if you can figure out what in the heck he means.” Another humorous poem was the earlier “Robota!” which kind of satirized human holidays like Thanksgiving. Is humor a necessity in writing? Do you seek a balance of humour and seriousness in your writing, or do you not consciously balance them? Do you think we need humour in writing to help us discover things?

JC:

I’m really glad you found the poems houmourous and laughed while reading them! Humour is one of the most important things in my life. Without laughter, whimsy and silliness we risk becoming awful. I think laughter connects people across ideas, it supersedes authority and brings us all together in the same state of enjoyment. I’m always impressed by people who are effortlessly funny. I view humour as an outgrowth of kindness.

In order for humour to work, I think there has to be some seriousness to balance it out. I attempt to show respect to my readers by treating their time and attention seriously while also undermining my own seriousness. If we can’t laugh at ourselves then we’re really deluded about what it means to be a poet at this point in time.

PP:

You very recently published your latest poetry book, Unknown Actor. Your last release was seven years ago. Was the gap due to a lack of inspiration? What motivated you to begin writing again?

JC:

The gap was purely a result of interrogating my role as a writer, what my motivations were for publishing and trying to find a way to more closely align my sense of duty and responsibility to what it means to be a poet. During that time I continued to write a lot and many of the poems ended up in Unknown Actor. I’m always writing or thinking about poetry. It’s a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year vocation!


Jason Christie grew up in Milton, Ontario. Jason’s poetry has appeared in journals and magazines, including: filling Station, dANDelion, Poetry is Dead, Action, Yes!, The Capilano Review, West Coast Line and Interim. Jason is the author of i-ROBOT Poetry, Canada Post and Unknown Actor which was published by Insomniac Press in the Spring of 2013. He is also an editor alongside angela rawlings and derek beaulieu of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry.


Laura Maier hails from a long line of elitist cartoon watchers. She spends her time in what her family refers to as her cave, under her blankets, staring at a glowing monitor, typing stories that will never see the light of day. She enjoys to discuss, in lengthy detail, theories and ideas surrounding her favourite shows, and prides herself on being a good observer. She hopes to one day work as a translator, but right now would prefer to spend all her time leading fake lives in video games.


Penelope Plessas is an avid reader and writer with a short story and poem published in “Setting the Scene” and “The Arrival” by Polar Expressions Publishing. She loves horses and tarsiers, paintballing and PlayStation, and wishes she was fluent in Greek. She is surprisingly lacking when it comes to humor, preferring the stinging bite of sarcasm. Look for her in the next New York Best Sellers List!!!

1 comment

Great interview folks, and so happy to know that Jason has a book coming out soon! We loved i-ROBOT Poetry, one of our most favourite projects to adapt to screen. Here's Jason talking about that process too :

http://www.movingstories.tv/th...

Bestest,
judith

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.

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