Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lives Aren't Stories: An Interview with Jacob Mcarthur Mooney

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Lives Aren't Stories: An Interview with Jacob Mcarthur Mooney

In this interview, Jake Mooney discusses his highly anticipated upcoming book "Folk" (M&S 2011) and offers bold, stirring responses as we talk about his memories of the Swiss Air 11 crash (the tragedy that threads the book together) his shifting concept of a reading audience, the poetry book as a commercial object, and finally what the future holds for one of our finest under 30 poets.


JL: Jake, your book “Folk” was recently identified as a highly anticipated upcoming release by the National Post. The article says that the book is "partly about the Swiss Air 11 crash off the coast of Peggy’s Cove in 1998." Is there anything you'd like to add to this?

JMM: Except that it's actually Flight 111, not really. The book has an anchor, in that specific event you've mentioned, which happened outside my bedroom window when I was a teenager. It starts there, most of the first half of the book is set there, and then it sort of wanders off... The second half is set in and around Pearson Airport, in the present.

I'm not sure how comfortable I am with that word "about", as the book is hopefully going to be "about" itself. Reading the thing will (ideally) be a leisure activity, so in the end I guess it can't get too close to any "aboutness" beyond simply the inciting of leisure in a willing traveler. But all the major motifs and themes are scavenged off the debris field of that original incident, sure. And they are: grief, community, geometry, geography, airports, the history of flight, regionalism, the traumatic disruption of the human body, um.....vector theory, mapmaking, humanism, naming conventions, and as suggested by the title, that idea of "the Folk", as it came off the tongue of everyone from Dylan to Adorno. All good stuff, I promise. Premium leisure. More leisurely than I make it sound.

JL: Wait, really? There was a plane crash outside your bedroom window when you were growing up? Can you tell us a little bit more about this? How old were you? Did you witness the crash? Or, is there anything specific you remember about that time?

JMM: Well, I grew up on a long dirt road in rural Nova Scotia, very close to the ocean. The inciting incident of the book, the plane crash, took place about a mile off-coast, and the town I grew up, along with a couple others, became for a short while the focus-centre of the world, as this thing and its whirlpool of 220 deaths took us over, remaking and rebranding the towns. Permanently, really. One doesn't say "Peggy's Cove" without the trigger rush of shared memories of death, just as one doesn't use "Lockerbie", or "Stoneycreek" as simple, unbrokered references to a place.

Specific memories? I don't know....a CNN reporter wearing a sou'wester he had bought from the airport giftshop (it was branded with the Halifax airport restaurant's logo) to report on the death count, the weird, perfectly timed rotation of rescue ships, the breathtakingly shallow argument about where, exactly, the memorial plaque should erected.

These aren't Personal memories, though, is what I'd like to argue. They (lower case p) personal, in that I experienced them, they happen to and around me, but I don't feel ownership over them, as they are so obviously atomistic and unsharable. So, writing about the event and the public reaction to it requires an "I" for directionality and a "we" for context, but the personal is only a peripheral concern there, you know? The personal is decorative, is hiding in plain sight.

JL: I want to back up for a moment to something you said in your first response regarding "the reader as traveller." I like this. It brings with it a number of connotations we might not necessarily associate with poetry: fun, discovery, commerce, personal betterment, and, maybe most importantly, escape and entertainment. I accidentally threw out my passport so I might have to get that fixed before I read, but maybe this is the kick in the ass I need to get it going....

Did your conception of the reader, or of what you wanted the poems to do, change from the writing of "New Layman's Almanac" to "Folk"? The reader-as-traveller is quite specific; maybe I'm making too much of it, but did you have such a conception going in NLA? Did thinking about your audience help you at all in the writing / editing process?

JMM: I would say, for sure, that I think about readership more now than I used to. Likely I think about it differently, too. A lot of the poems in TNLA, I was so young when I started them-- like 18, 19, that kind of young--that the idea of readership was still something of a novelty. For me, it's hard not to look at that book (even though it's not that old, and I stand by it) with a trace of nostalgia.

I think I'm much more into the idea of the book as a commerce object than I had been, and that maybe tricks over into the aesthetics of the thing too. A book peaks in "mine-ness" the morning before it gets submitted to the publisher. Then the publisher, the editor, the designer, all blur into it with their share of the final vision. And then the great democratizing moment for the book is the day it becomes available to be read by others. I like the idea, and this is maybe why I like making page-poetry and not sound-poetry where both the writing and the aural reception of that writing are dictated by the authorship, of saying to a possible audience: Here, take this. This isn't mine anymore. It's only mine in that I made is as giftable as I could. Only the part before the object was mine.

The poems in the Almanac book were personal poems. They were about me. The "I" owned them. The "I" lorded over that world. There's an "I" speaker throughout this one too, but s/he doesn't own anything, or really have permission to speak for anything, because the subject is either too massive (a plane crash) or too complicated (the physics of flight) to own in voice. So, the voice ends up necessarily passive, though not objective. In a way, necessarily generous.

JL: I'm interested in hearing a bit more about this idea of the book as a commercial object--particularly a book of poetry. I think you're right in your conception of the author / reader relationship, and I'm piqued by your use of the word "giftable." I may be thinking too much of Lewis Hyde's "The Gift" but this seems to suggest to me a certain kind of gift economy in which a book of poetry exists--that is, as an object whose rationale is based not profit/loss or reward but on a certain larger social cohesion, or, or something....

Coming out of writing "Folk," how might you perceive this definition of a poetry book being "giftable"? Did that idea take shape over the writing of "Folk," or have you had it in mind for a while? It seems to me that idea of commerce is a big part of "Folk" -- of a smaller community becoming a kind of marketable global phenomenon because of a tragic event that just happened to take place there. Did writing your account of the tragedy as a book of poetry (instead of as, let's say, something more marketable--non-fiction, fiction, anything) allow you to contribute to (or commemorate it) it in a different way?

JMM: That's likely all valid, and moreso because it wasn't something I was thinking about while writing the book, but hearing you say so makes absolutely sense.

I wrote the book in poetry and not prose or human DNA because I was concerned about doing right by the material and felt like poetry was home to my self-confidence. . Moreover, the lyric is something I have no problem "buying into" (another commercialism debt for you). In essence, I see a lyrical poem as something that contains within it a bias to account (subjective, objective, communal, personal, whatever) for life. Can life can be expressed in terms of a succession of would-be lyrical moments? I say yes. It's cool if you say no but, for me, I say yes. I also write a bit of fiction, and my fiction tends to be antagonistic towards the form because I don't, in this little civic religion, really see the prosaic narrative as something that wants to describe or account life. Lives aren't stories, I don't think. Lots of people disagree with me, obviously, and they'd decide write a novel or a non-fiction account of Swissair. Many have. Their brains work differently than my brain. Isn't it great how we're not all the same people, Jeffrey? The scope of the tragedy demands that I bring what I'm best at, bring the tools that I believe in.

I don't want to ignore your question about commerce, either. The gift economy is natural to poetry. It feels natural. The purest expression of professional poet-dom I can think of is the post-reading exchange of books with my fellow reader. And even below that, "influence" is the unit of currency in this economy, as expressed from the library card on down to the meeting for drinks and conversation and ideas. The elephant in the room, when I wax on about my utopian poetry sideshow, is that I publish with a press that's part of an international conglomerate that did about 3 billion dollars in revenue last year. So, probably, I'm a bullshitter. But I'm a self-aware bullshitter, I promise. I went, in about 2 months, from writing solely on my lunch breaks and publishing in Xeroxed, basement-bred "lit mags" to doing an MFA and publishing with M&S. So, it's reasonable that if commerce is a theme in my work, I'm only now getting caught up to it enough to express it.

M&S is staffed by wonderful, ambitious, energetic people but there is always part of me that always thinks that there's an inherent and unfixable disconnect between poetry and high capitalism. Even if everyone involved in the machine has an English degree, recycles, and voted Green. Poetry is a cottage industry, and it remains a mutation of that ideal when we (bravely) try and create it from within the same company that created, say, Brian Mulrooney's big book of how nothing was his fault.

Maybe the best thing that could ever happen to poetry is this getting "left behind" that everyone's so concerned about: by corporations, universities, government, the e-reader. It just doesn't niche well in any of those other world views. It's weird that I don't know the name of my typesetter. So if I use "commerce" in my work, it's really just an extension of my real theme, "place". I want for things that they live in their natural habitats, and if that's not possible, I want to investigate the friction that bends and mutates them if they don't. Commerce is a mutation of poetry, isn't it? At least, high commerce, incorporated commerce. That being said, I don't particularly loathe being mutated. Everything's mutated by something. I am both a bullshitter and a mutant. This must be what Whitman meant when he talked about multitudes.

JL: Nicely put. What you've said about stories is certainly bold and there is something decidedly conspicuous about the machinery of plot -- though, I wonder, does poetry (and I might qualify that here with the baggae of "lyrical poetry") have an equivalent machinery at work? Is it the push towards internal rhyme, elegance/concision, or something about the way certain themes continue intruding in the poems (i.e. how the poems are ordered?)? Anything that is edited, I think, has a machinery at work, no?

Granted, it's almost impossible to say as there are too many divisions within the poetry community to get any sort of agreement as to the merit of any of these "poetic" concepts. But the idea of a poem as an expression of life vs. a leisurely activity is something that fascinates me because I think the assumption (both within and without the poetry community) is that poetry is not meant to be entertaining. But why shouldn't it be? Or, I think poetry may have something to offer us in a sort of re-imagining of what entertainment is--not as a crude reiteration of status quo values, but as a means of connecting more fully to a notion of play.

I'm wondering if you might tell us about what's coming up with the launch of "Folk" and where and when you're taking it out into the world. Also, maybe you could let us know what's on the horizon -- is there another book in an incubatory stage or are you working any new projects? Or are you taking time off? Thanks for doing this interview, Jake.

JMM: I agree with all that re: machinery. I'd argue though that what you're talking about is more a set of norms than a set of laws. A story has to do something. "I moved my pen from one pocket to another." There, that's a story. The poem doesn't even have to do that though, right? "I moved my pen from one pocket to the same pocket." That's a poem. Infer your own elegance.

And, because I'm worried about coming across as a nihilist, Im not saying that life is random and unstructured and therefore can be emulated by the random unstructuredness of a poem. Neither of those things are unstructured. The poem just has fewer demands, fewer moving parts, and so its rate of adaptation is quicker. To use the vocabulary from the last answer, it's a better mutant.

What am I up to? I dunno. I'm going to the Yukon in the summer. And then Europe for a bit. Basically, I'm quitting my life. I'll probably write poems in both of those places, but if I don't it's not the end of the world. I'm trying to write without a net for as long as possible, before I decide on what it is I'm writing about, and pull on that thread until there's a book. That was something of a mixed metaphor party so, put another way, as someone who likes the "thematic" collection, I'm in that awkward, often wonderful, period between topics of interest.

I'm also working on a novel. I'm always working on a novel. I'm working on a novel like Atlas is working on his trikes.

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.

Jeff Latosik

Jeff Latosik’s first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press), was published in Spring 2010.

Go to Jeff Latosik’s Author Page