Q & A with Poet Michael Lista
A few days ago I met poet Michael Lista at the Cafe Diplomatico on College Street, where we talked, among other things, about Canadian poetry, Bloom, his soon-to-be-published debut from The House of Anansi Press, and a preview of that collection which appears in this month's issue of The Walrus, or here.
From a podcast on Julie Wilson's blog Seen Reading, I knew that Michael has an incredibly emotive reading style, so, after we finished talking, I showed Michael two of my favourite poems, "Teachers" by Leonard Cohen, and "Breakfast For Barbarians" by Gwendolyn MacEwen, and frankly asked him to read one while I filmed it for posterity. Michael chose "Teachers" and then we walked to the church on Grace Street, where his reading entranced me, and also three construction workers doing stonework a few feet away. You can view the video here.
LK: Michael, one of our connections has to do with the word “bloom.” Your first poetry collection Bloom is due out in April 2010 from Anansi. The narrator of my new novel, Where We Have to Go, is named Lucy Bloom. What is it about the word “bloom”?
ML: There is a magic quality to the word, isn’t there? Long before I decided to write a book called Bloom, before I discovered Ulysses or its Leopold Bloom, I thought the word was the most outrageously beautiful in the language. There’s a Nabokovian, onomatopoetic quality to it, the b––no, who am I kidding, I’m not going to Lolita the goddamn word. But you could. It works so beautifully in a book like yours because Lucy’s surname is a synecdoche for what’s happening to her over the course of her bildungsroman; a similar thing is happening in my Bloom. Sometimes this really doesn’t work in literature––how many groaners have graphic novels and Harlequins given us like that?––but I think because the word is so gorgeous, and its meaning is at once specific and general, it can work. Like anything in literature, there are no rules to it; it just works if it works. Plus put it on a human story, and it’s such an elegant foil to the popular fallacy that our species is somehow at the end of natural history, so removed from the organic world that we’ve now sublimated its laws. More importantly I think we both just like the way it sounds.
LK: How did the concept for Bloom first come to you?
ML: An unfortunate part of writing a book like Bloom is that it’s easy for people to paint you as some megalomaniac forcing the world into an arbitrary conceit. That wasn’t how it was with Bloom at all. It came very organically; I had been reading about Slotin on Wikipedia one day about three years ago; that got me thinking about him. I’ve always been interested in the Manhattan Project, and started trying to find mention of Slotin in the great non-fiction books written about the Project, but couldn’t find more than the same recycled blurb, never more than a paragraph or two about the day of his demise, his accident, his bogus heroism. So I wrote some really boring poems about that, but I was only ever telling the story, not showing it. I couldn’t find a form dangerous enough to do justice to the hubristic insanity of Slotin’s defining moment, what scientists called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” And then I found out that the accidental prompt-criticality of a nuclear core, which happened to Slotin’s experiment, was called a “bloom.” That got me thinking about Ulysses, and the fact that it was a sort of Joycean pun gave me the permission I felt I needed. Then things started falling into place. The little that people knew about Slotin’s life had a sort of narrative rhyme with the plot of Ulysses––the funeral service, the fact that Slotin was Jewish, his being a cuckold, his father-son archetypal relationship, his belaboured journey back to his estranged wife, etc… He even had a father in Homer’s Odysseus, who was the engineer of the first weapon of mass destruction, the Trojan Horse. And then I realized I was writing a book based on James Joyce’s uber-masterpiece, and I was panicked by it, so I started writing these English-to-English translations to avoid taking Ulysses head-on, and they just sort of made a lot of sense on a bunch of levels, so I kept at it. But it’s strange; I can’t remember what that click moment was like; one day I was just sort of fiddling around and then the next I was writing Bloom.
LK: Bloom is many things, but first and foremost a meditation on the life Louis Slotin, a notable but sometimes overlooked figure from Canadian—and world—history. Who was Slotin?
ML: The interesting thing about Slotin is that we know very, very little about him. And that’s not a coincidence. First of all, he was a fantastic liar; he told various parties that when he was in England he flew for the RAF, and that when he was in Spain he fought for the resistance in the Spanish Civil War. All of that is utter bullshit. The other reason we know nothing about him is because he’s a victim of the Canadian imagination, which is repulsed by people like Slotin. He found his individuation abroad, which as we’re seeing happen to Michael Ignatief, is deeply mistrusted by the average Canadian. He was also exceptional; his reason for being remembered is tied up in the hubristic realization of his genius, during a moment of historic gravitas, and nothing gives Canucks the willies like rugged individualism. It’s too imprudent, too protean, too American for our palates. All our heroes are collectivists; even our literature works on this principle. CanLit (the fact it has such a corporate moniker should be evidence enough) since the 1960s has been propelled forward on the principle of collective motion; individual talent is soluble in the solvent genius of the group. To America’s Edison we offer Bell; whereas the former’s lightbulb was protean, promethean, the latter’s is moot without community. Slotin hasn’t been ignored; we’ve looked him over well. He’s been forgotten.
LK: Louis Slotin was born in Winnipeg, schooled in Chicago, and died in Los Alamos, New Mexico. For me, one of the remarkable things about Bloom is the way it evokes place so powerfully. How do you imagine places you’ve never been?
ML: I really appreciate your saying that, Lauren, but I actually find place a really difficult thing to write about. So much of writing is so similar to seduction, and when it comes to place––and maybe this is my recovering-Catholic prudishness speaking––I find that a light touch goes a long way. I’m more interested in what people say than where they say it, and so my rule for Bloom was to get the way everyone spoke right, and let the locale be painted in by cadence. That being said, I had the constant imperative of Joyce’s meticulous geography bearing down, so there is a very deliberate mapping of Slotin’s movements which readers can follow, if they’re shamelessly nerdy enough, but whenever Slotin’s anywhere, his mind is usually elsewhere, which feels honest to me.
LK: When I read the manuscript of Bloom, I was overwhelmed by the elegiac beauty, and the delicate construction of every poem. How did you go about researching Slotin’s life and then transforming that knowledge into poetry?
ML: Because so much of Slotin’s life on the day of May 21st 1946 was draped in fog or propaganda, I ended up just writing about myself at first. Bloom in many ways is an autobiography. The book isn’t nearly as historical or literary as it may at first glance appear to be; I don’t think it’s really about Slotin in the end, truth be told. There was only this one bit of information about Slotin to research, the way he preformed this experiment, and so that became the organizing principle of the whole book. It colours and informs everything he does, and the way I render it.
LK: Each poem in the collection is written “after” a poet – Sexton, Babstock, Crowe, Frost, etc. Your Lou Reed reference slayed me, by the way. Do you consider each poem a homage?
ML: Most certainly not. That’s the last thing they are. The goal of a Bloom poem is usually to deride, undercut, revise, cheat, lie, steal, be generally shady. If any good comes from them, it’s usually at the expense of the original. The world we live in is eroding our conceptions of intellectual ownership, and I wanted the poems from Bloom to tap into that; I treat the originals like a formal conceit, like a sonnet or a villanelle, an aesthetic with rules I have to follow, often by bending them. And I wanted to home in on the reason the world was given for the atom bomb’s creation; to keep it out of Nazi hands, to end the war with Japan before having to invade the island; bombing for peace, killing for life. The English-to-English translation said something in that vein. But the main reason I chose the form I did, or had to chose it, isn’t because I have any sort of reverence for the poems I translate; I just wanted a form that looked as dangerous as the work that lead to Slotin’s demise. And nothing flirts with danger in literature like plagiarism. Plus there’s the sense of the translated poem as being a sort of irradiated mutant of the original, which spoke to the subject matter nicely, the shadow-flash of Slotin’s personality silhouetting the original. The form seemed taboo enough, insane and controversial enough, to be a faithful simulacrum.
LK: When you were working on Bloom, what were you reading?
ML: I read Ulysses more or less all the time. But I feel like I never read it particularly faithfully. It took me the four years I worked on the book to finally read Ulysses half-successfully. It’s a hard book to end up loving. I actually have mixed feelings about it; I’m not sure how successful it is as a reading experience. It’s an exceptional work of genius, no doubt, one I’m deeply grateful for. But you have to keep in mind that Joyce’s central influence in Ulysses was Bruno, the medieval Italian philosopher, and Ulysses in many ways is more a work of philosophy than it is a work of fiction. Joyce’s favourite episode was “Ithaca,” the automaton catechism chapter, the one that sounds like two Deep Blues shooting the shit. In it Stephen Dedalus says that “literature is the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man” to which “Bloom dissents tacitly.” It is in many ways a deeply heartbreaking, gorgeous, profound poo-joke. Nora Joyce once said, “I suppose my husband is a genius, but he’s got a very dirty mind.” The funnier I realized Ulysses was, the easier it was to write in its shadow. It’s a comedy. I was reading a lot of poetry too, reading as much as I could really. I went out looking for Slotin in literature, because he was gone from history, and so the poems I chose for translation had a whiff of him that I was attracted to.
LK: Did you go to school for writing?
ML: Nope. I took a writing class once at Queen’s, taught by a playwright who no longer wrote plays, and he once eviscerated me in front of the class for something I wrote, with malice. Told me to stick to acting. After that I decided the workshop wasn’t the place for me. And quit acting.
LK: Do you have any personal writing rituals?
ML: I always do my best writing first thing in the morning. And I’m superstitious about my desk. I don’t like to write away from my desk. And I can’t write long-hand. I think I might write my next book on a typewriter, because my attention wanders, and knowing that the heaving sea of the internet is so close to where I’m trying to write can be wildly distracting. Saying you want to write on a typewriter sounds jack-assy, I know. But it may turn out to be a fruitful necessity.
Michael Lista's poems have appeared widely, most recently in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, and Guy Maddin's companion book to his film My Winnipeg (Coach House Books, 2009). He has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and twice for the Pushcart Prize. Bloom is forthcoming from the House of Anansi in April 2010.