Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Andrew McEwan

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Andrew McEwan

Andrew McEwan's debut full-length poetry collection is this season's repeater (BookThug). The book combines the fluidity of poetry with the rigidity of programming code to create an innovative new reading experience.

Andrew talks with Open Book about sound art, binary code and his upcoming projects.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, repeater.

Andrew McEwan:

repeater is a book-length poetry project that sees itself as a codebook. It takes the foundational ASCII binary code for the letters of the alphabet, and writes lines of poetry that correspond to each binary digit. In this way the poems are written into the code that is in turn written into the letter. There are also poems as indices forming supplemental studies and delving into other interactions between computer and poetic language. Overall the book enacts and plays with the troubling relationship between the rigid structures of code by reversing its hierarchy, making poetry and words constitute the code that ordinarily constitutes the letters of the poetry and words.


What drew you to binary code as a language? Did you have a background in coding before this book?


I don’t have a background in coding or computer programming. I liked the idea of working with the structure of computer binary language as an outsider, who only knows its façade on the screen, but not its workings. I think this freed me up to manipulate the code as a metaphor, and gave me enough distance to treat it as a poetic constraint system, abstracted from its usefulness.


Who or what have been some of your greatest sources of support and inspiration while writing repeater?


The sound art of Ryoji Ikeda was seminal to the development of my thoughts about repeater. Through repetition and sequences, he transforms the clicks and beeps of digital workings into an art form. At best, I hope that in some ways repeater creates a similar experience, but instead of composing sound from computer beeps, it composes poetry from the technical language surrounding computer programming.


You also work as an editor for The Hart House Review and Acta Victoriana Literary Journal. How does your editorial work intersect with your own writing?


I love poetry and love to engage with it in many ways. Editing for me is very separate from my own writing, but comes from the same impulse. I enjoy working with and getting the chance to present other writers’ work.


Do you notice particular themes, images or obsessions that turn up in your writing across various projects?


Currently, I find the use of poetry to interact with all types of structures to be a fairly constant preoccupation in my writing. I have a strong sense that although self-imposed, structures of thought and language impose very real constraints that cannot easily be pushed aside. More experimentally leaning poetry has, in the past, attempted to strip as many structures away from the poetry as possible, thus freeing it. I see my writing as part of a response to such approaches, in that it returns to the idea of imposed structures, but with a more critical (and sometimes ironic) eye.


Do you find your reading habits change at all when you're working on a writing project?


My writing is very research based. The processes of research and writing are hard to disentangle for me. I try to delve into the science, philosophy and literature of a topic while writing. repeater had me researching the history of binary number systems from Leibniz to current computing. During this research I uncovered the original ASCII document issued in 1963, which provided a framework for laying out a codebook.


What are you working on now?


Right now I am working a book of twin long poems that engage with ideas of spatial interaction. The first, “Room Building”, works to write space without people. It does this through writing the poem as a static room. Its counterpart, “Guided Tour”, writes people without space, and takes the form of a transcript of a guided tour that tours its own process — a tour of a tour. I see this project continuing an engagement with structures similar to repeater, but moving into an investigation of the ways the poem exists as a physical space.

Andrew McEwan is the author of the chapbook Input / Output from Cactus Press. His writing was awarded the E.J. Pratt Poetry Medal. He is currently finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, where he has been the Editor-in-Chief at the Acta Victoriana Literary Journal and Poetry Editor at The Hart House Review. repeater is his first book.

For more information about repeater please visit the BookThug website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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