An Interview with Gregory Betts

Türkçesini okumak için / Read in Turkish:

First of all I would like to say thank you for accepting our request to interview with you. Mr.Betts, you are a professor at Brock University at the faculty of English Language and Literature. You have done some remarkable research on avant-garde writing of Canada. You have published articles and book chapters also co-edited books in this research area. That’s why I want to start from there? What are the issues and difficulties which avant-garde artists are facing both in Canada and worldwide? Do you think avant-garde writing is complicated by nature and this causes some trouble?

Most people understand the avant-garde through its opposition to gentility, as if it took up Baudelaire’s long revenge against his aristocratic parents. Outside of Paris, though, the avant-garde has also served as an essential interruption of colonial cultures, where its anti-art, aesthetic deviations have been repurposed to serve local revolutionary efforts. Colonial culture in Canada has persisted perhaps longer than in other places (the Union Jack is, still, one of our two official state flags). Consequently, our early avant-gardists struggled in isolation and were too easily isolated, censured, and even censored. Figures like Brion Gysin or Jean-Paul Riopelle felt they had little choice but to merely leave Canada for Paris and other more conducive environs. Since the 1960s, an artistic counterculture has emerged in concert with other disruptive social movements that has fostered, now, generations of avant-garde scenes. It is only in the 2000s, though, that the full post-colonial potential of avant-garde tools have started to be mobilized. I look to artists like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Dana Claxton, Brian Jungen, Jordan Abel, Skawennati, Matthew Weigel, Tanya Tagaq, Kent Monkman, amongst many others, as exemplary avant-gardists smashing Canadian polite but colonialist ideology with their work.

Do you think experiment is an essential element of avant-garde writing? I mean, is it the core of whole avant-garde or just one of the techniques that avant-garde uses? Also can you explain the term “experiment”? Is it the systematic experiment conveyed from modern science or spiritual awareness from antique alchemy?     

Some people bristle at the idea of “experimental” art as if it permits publication of botched lab experiments. Alas, it does that. People can decide for themselves if we can tolerate more mutants and horrors in the world, and if the rewards merit that pitfall. However, the Latin root of the word experimental stems from the verb experiri which means both to be experienced and to try or to risk. Given that avant-gardism invariably postulates a better, more liberated society, and that pushing against the habits of your culture is inherently risky, embracing the experimental as a mode of art making also works, even if it comes at the risk of less successful, more self-indulgent monstrosities (or, worse, banalities). So, for me, the root metaphor is neither scientific or alchemical but ideational, cascading in all directions, manifesting in all fields of the human imagination.

As you quote, Renato Poggioli has described the avant-garde as a class of bohemians whose specific agendas may differ, but whose artistic stances have much in common. Do you completely agree with that? What are these distinctions and commonalities among avant-garde? Could you explain us in little bit more detail?

While the art goals and the political contexts may differ dramatically (and the aesthetics of a Latin American revolutionary Surrealist is truly incommensurate with a Manhattan Conceptualist), there is a shared commitment to the postulate what if? While the motivation behind that pursuit might differ, both pursue the limits of what if and arrive at similarly extreme, disruptive aesthetical outcomes. In my experience, even despite internecine personality conflicts, there is a recognition and even begrudging acknowledgement of achievements across and between the many gardes. Sometimes not even begrudging (alas, often internecine).

As I understood you explore and analyze important avant-garde techniques therefore you can invent new ones by same approach. Does it mean avant-garde is not just about becoming a deserter or breaking ranks or chains? Does also avant-garde writing have connections with experience of the past? If so how firm these connections are and how does an artist take this huge amount of data and turn it into something new?

I’ve always believed that the tools and efforts of the past can be reclaimed and redeployed, picked up and mobilized by subsequent generations. It is actually the very thing we lost in Canada. Almost fifty years of avant-garde activity was marooned and forgotten, while subsequent individuals and generations of artists had to re-invent the means and permissions for creating necessary, responsive, and locally disruptive art. It isn’t that we ever wholly invent new forms. Theocritus produced pattern poetry in 250BC. The Hebraic tradition of “micrography” produced elaborate textual-visual works in the 10th century. It is no new insight to recognize the material properties and visual potential of language and its alphabets. Concrete Poetry, though, modifies those insights in response to the rise of transnational capitalism and its globalized advertising cultures, seeking to reclaim some lost intellectual freedom through poetry. In other words, it combines old tools with new needs and arrives at the forefront of a new aesthetic pursuit, becoming thereby a new garde.

To expand the previous question. Do you think there is an ongoing conflict between traditional and avant-garde writing?  

There is no conflict between traditional forms and the avant-garde. Those are all just tools waiting to be reanimated, recontextualized, extended, and repurposed. A lyric poem in the hands of a poet like Neruda or Habib Jalib can galvanize a people. I suppose there will always be conflict between those who insist on sustaining established cultures at the expense of new responses to an ever-changing world, censuring or worse censoring those works that will outmode (or de-mode) older habits. Walter Benjamin notes that the true contemporary is inevitably at odds with and even opposed to their contemporary culture, shaped as it is by the past.

Besides all this thinking and theorizing you also have been part of quite interesting art projects. Especially “Dazzle Pods” drew my attention. Those strange creatures which were designed by Catherine Heard came into life by you telling their stories in verse. I think until someone’s story is told they are not quite alive. I want to dig into background of these creatures. How did you two -Catherine and you I mean- came up with this idea? Do you think avant-garde art should have more of these interdisciplinary workshops? I do not mean just different artists. In broader sense do you think an artist also should design projects with people from different professions? (For a bright example of what I mean, I want to remind you The Xenotext by Christian Bök.)  How does avant-garde writing approach collective consciousness?

The Dazzle Pods! I love these little creatures. Catherine Heard is one of my favourite artists – the only Canadian represented in Mary Ann Caws’ iconic book Surrealism. Catherine and I have been working together and collaborating in various ways for many years, dating back to 2007 when she lived in my attic in St. Catharines. She invited me to name her creatures and liked the names I gave to them, all of which come from obscure or favourite words (Bedin, Basileus, Taradiddle, Bumfuzzle, etc). Inspired, she wanted to know more about these creatures. Their personalities, stories, and relations were all developed in response to connotations of their names. I began thinking of their names, the words themselves, as electric networks of meaning, as dazzling pods of association and resonance.

I’m a highly allergic person and, like most artists, I’m especially allergic to anybody who tells me what I let alone all artists “should” be doing. Artists should only ever make exactly the art in exactly the way that suits their needs at that exact moment. That said, I always encourage every artist to collaborate with artists from other disciplines and always champion artists who breach their forms. I have had wonderful, transformative experiences collaborating with visual artists, including Matt Donovan, Hallie Siegel, Neil Hennessy, and Catherine Heard, and musicians, including Arnold McBay, Devon Fornelli, Ben Mikuska, Duncan MacDonald, and Gary Barwin, and learned new ways to see language from those experiences. I understand language and my own art better through these interdisciplinary collaborations.

Name of one of your poetry books is “Psychic Geographies and Other Topics”. It starts with a quote from Stephane Mallarme and it says “A landscape haunts, intense as opium”. It really sounded ironic to me and I want to ask this. How do you think poetry- especially avant-garde poetry- move across borders? Do you think avant-garde creates new opportunities for brand-new interactions beyond borders and identities?

That has certainly been my experience. Let me give you an example. In 2015, some friends in Iceland took notice that I was to be in Reykjavik for an academic conference and invited me to do a poetry reading at a UNESCO City of Literature Event. The event coincided with the fifth annual “SlutWalk”, an annual feminist protest parade that has its origins in defiance of a misogynistic statement by a Toronto Police Constable in 2011. The parade was re-routed through the poetry venue such that my poetry became part of the parade, part of a transglobal response to gender repression and victim shaming. I was the only man in that space, the only non-Icelander, but yet the strangeness and particularity of the event created a singular space for us to meet each other and start a rigorous, serious, and revitalizing exchange. My relationship to my writing changed in that moment. The event resolved down to a large table where we talked at length, almost workshopped together, about gender, form, protest, and social mobilization — the coincidences around the event became the subject of the event. I have been publishing poetry regularly in Icelandic publications ever since, but that Icelandic moment comes forth in all my writing, in a way, too.

If I may, the irony is that line by Mallarmé is more of the cosmic type. We live and work subject to forces far beyond our control, but yet the interruptions hurled at us by the gods become opportunities to break out of our haunted habits and conventions. We might recover/discover/uncover something vital, sobering for that exact moment. Ruptures in the earth sometimes grant access to the roots.

To expand the discussion on previous question. What does differentiate being indigenous from being universal? Or does it?

Notions of universal cultural truths (or “laws” as per Charles Olson) strike me in much the same way as imperatives about what artists “should” be doing. I think we are all local, grounded, specific, material balls of sentience (each Dazzle Pods in our own way). Mass media and culture has allowed us, if we want, to create transnational and globalized identities and localities. While this does erode and, in many cases, supplant exclusively local cultures and identities, those localized networks often reassert themselves in surprising ways, like subverted waterways or diverted lakes re-emerging years, decades, centuries later.

Because of you have an academic background I wonder what you think about the classification of poetry? I mean do you believe in different branches of poetry really exist such as visual, concrete, asemic and so on? Does this classification help us when we talk about poetry or is it just for academic purposes? Why aren’t they all called just poetry?  

As a lover of the subtle folds and nuances of language, I do think it is useful to be aware of what words mean in their specificity. If there is any craft at all in poetry it starts with knowing what our words mean. Recognizing a difference between visual and concrete, for instance, begets a historical consciousness, as is the difference between L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Language and language writing. Such knowledge can be useful and practical and attentive to the ongoing movement of culture in particular veins of expression. Learning the particularities of the forms you list above can be helpful in understanding how those forms emerged, how they were used and, consequently, how they might be of use in the future. This knowledge can be generative, but I admit it can also be limiting when it is used prescriptively or punitively as another form of gatekeeping, which is inevitably less interesting. It can be a witty amusement, as in Darren Wershler’s four character “sonnet” (“q8 / a6”), or reveal cultural absurdities, as when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for literature. The more you know about poetry, though, the more you can register the innovations of particular works, such as with Christian Bök’s Eunoia or Xenotext or M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! or Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps. That appreciation might well be academic, but it is also technological—and every revolution needs a good tech specialist.

I also want to talk about your specific agenda. What is going on with your research and art works? Is there something new coming up soon? A book maybe? Are you planning to take a new path in terms of your own avant-garde writing?

My academic work has, so far, been focused on tracking down and mapping what has been lost in Canada. I mentioned before that fifty years of avant-garde works were lost, ignored, or outright censored. I have written two books about lost gardes in Canada and been involved in the recovery of seven iconic works of experimental writing in Canada. My hope with such work is to remember them before they are irrevocably lost and, by remembering them, grant further permission to subsequent generations of writers to work from these precedents. My most recent academic book, Finding Nothing: The VanGardes, 1959-1975, looks at the explosion of avant-garde writing in one context, Vancouver, over a period of 16 years. That period is one of the most studied periods and geographies in all of Canadian literature, and yet the existing narratives have their own erasure effects in how they “find nothing” in efforts outside their own cultural or aesthetic pursuits. In the book, while recovering lost or marginalized anecdotes and aesthetic networks, I wrestle with the more nuanced reflection on how historical narratives can displace and supplant alternative histories. So, it isn’t just a book about cool avant-garde writing, but also about how Canada unfinds such work.

Lastly, what is the future of avant-garde writing? Also our Turkish readers will be pleased to hear about current situation and trends- if it is the right word to choose- in avant-garde writing of Canada. Maybe a panoramic view of Canadian avant-garde.

There is no future of avant-garde writing; the avant-garde is always re-writing the future. In Canada, we are just, now, coming to terms with the inheritance of our colonial heritage. It will require an enormous shift in perception to handle all that is being revealed and all that will be uncovered. Avant-garde art has an essential role to play in both interrupting the contemporary culture, with its inherent conservative and colonial bias, and in opening up the possibilities of a more liberated future. How much of “Canada” remains after that process is anybody’s guess. I don’t know what it will look like, but I do believe that we are, more than ever before, ready to take this necessary step. I also believe that we already have access to the literary forms of the future. They will feel different when we need them in the future, filled with a sudden vitality that will take a shift in culture to finally recognize.

Gregory Betts and Muhammed Yusuf Aktekin, Buzdokuz 9, January-February 2022.