25th Trillium Award

Profile on Jason Christie

 
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Jason Christie

by rob mclennan

Originally from Milton, Ontario, Jason Christie is a poet and visual artist who has lived in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. During his time in Calgary, Jason organized the successful YARD reading series, which spawned his late lamented micropress project, yardpress. In 2007, he relocated to Vancouver where he joined the Kootenay School of Writing and co-curated, with Jordan Scott, the Respondency West reading and lecture series, a series modeled on Margaret Christakos? highly successful Influency Salon, before returning to Calgary. Christie?s poetry has appeared journals and magazines such as filling Station, dANDelion, Poetry is Dead, Action, Yes!, The Capilano Review, West Coast Line and Interim, and he is the author of a number of chapbooks by a variety of presses, including above/ground press, Edmonton?s Olive Reading Series, housepress and NO Press. He was also an editor alongside angela rawlings and derek beaulieu of the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005), a co-editor of Open Letter?s small/micropress issue, and an editorial board member for dANDelion, existere and filling Station.

In her review of Christie?s first trade poetry collection, Canada Post (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2006), Sina Queyras wrote: ??there is a poet in Canada Post, out on a limb a bit, with a fresh perspective and great energy.? His second collection of poetry, i-ROBOT Poetry (Calgary AB: EDGE/Tesseract, 2006), was a collection of self-proclaimed ?robot poems,? providing a rare confluence between science fiction and contemporary poetry. As R. Steven Rainwater notes in his 2007 review of the collection at robots.net: ?Many of the poems seems to take place in a common future history, filled with talking toasters, trans-human cybernetic beings, disgruntled workerbots, overbearing bossbots, and friendly robots who sing Happy Activation Day to You! with their robot friends on that special robot holiday.? i-ROBOT Poetry was later adapted for the stage in Calgary by Natalee Caple, Mark Hopkins and Charles Netto to rave reviews, providing one of only a handful of poetry collections adapted for other medium (think of Christian Bök?s Eunoia adapted as a modern dance performance, or Michael Turner?s Hard Core Logo that became a feature-length film). In his ?12 or 20 questions? interview (posted October 10, 2007), he wrote:

Poems usually begin with a startling thought that gets into my head and snaps me out of whatever I was doing, or a strange sentence will occur to me and keep occurring until I write it down. Sometimes all it takes is a word, and I'm off writing. The robot poems, for example, often started with me thinking of something funny that related to robots and then I'd sit down to write, or grab a pen and random piece of paper and I'd write a first draft of the poem in one sitting. That's not always the way it goes, I do have files on my computer, and loads of scrap notes lying around that I'm hoping to return to, or add to something I'm working on, but for the robot book it was kind of magical. I would say I'm an author of short pieces that combine into a book and an author that forms a book from the beginning. I've had both experiences. Canada Post is a book that features several poems that I realized were all responding to similar issues about identity and nationality, and it made sense to bring them together. Strangely enough the robot poems got their start as Canada Post poems. I realized that they weren't right for the book and set them aside. I kept writing them like crazy until it dawned on me that they were becoming a book of their own. My new project is one that I conceived right off the start. It is a series of narrative poems, and I knew where they were going before I even wrote the first one. So this new book is definitely one that was conceived as a book first then the poems came later.

Since then, he was shortlisted for the 2011 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and published the poetry collection Unknown Actor (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2013), a collection that worked its way through a variety of voices around the theatrical stage and screen. In an interview conducted by Kevin Spenst and posted on Spent?s blog (March 15, 2011), Christie writes:

My theories are almost all tricks. When I revise I mostly look for anything that doesn?t startle me and I wreck it. So, I tend to let the sound lead me through a poem and if that isn?t working then I arrange words and sometimes mangle sentences so that the sounds move in interesting ways. On a cursory level my poems probably look like blocks of prose and I work really hard to make them function on a very obvious discursive level while also playing with the sounds that spill over and around the punctuation from sentence to sentence. I think that is the real power of a prose poem: to be at once sensible and impossible to sense. The rootedness of prose gets to jangle off the unobtainable sonority of syllables. Revising becomes a way to tighten and heighten the discomfort between the world and the way words approximate it.

This summer, he will be moving to Ottawa for at least a year with his wife and their infant son for the sake of his wife? work.

rob mclennan:

One might suggest that much of your entire published output so far is one that explores a series of voices, from the robot poems of i-ROBOT to the theatrical responses of Unknown Actor. According to a recent bio, you are ?currently writing poems about a fictitious forest, a tongue-in-cheek take on Jason and The Argonauts and Money.? What is the appeal in exploring such a variety of voices, and how conscious are you of playing through such different voices?

Jason Christie:

I'm fairly conscious of trying to play through different voices. Robert Kroetsch's Hornbooks of Rita K remains one of my favourite examples of playing through and with voices and identity. So many of the books of poetry I see are safely on the side of the poet's voice. Robert Browning's poetic monologues were an influence on many of the poems in Unknown Actor. I want to see more fiction in poetry. Where are our Coleridges?

As a way to think about my role as an author, I tried to surrounded myself with voices in the robot book. There is a poem in the book about that relationship to my subject(s) in which the robots interrogate me.

Robot Mouth: An Open Letter to the Author

The robot clanked into its own mouth and pulled the words out. It said I am a robot. I am a subject only so far as the sentence allows, or else I'm an object whenever a human presents himself or herself at the start of the paragraph. It shines from my eyes, what I can't say because my program won't let me. It's my content that gets me every time. Hums as a heart. I've rested my head on your hearth and reset myself so many times because of clumsy, erring human prose. What I want is to find another way to say this that doesn't shackle me to your signification system, but you are also responsible for my language. I'm aping a human. I'm a community of parts acting in unison toward a goal. My parts march in consolidation. The commands my central processor issue swarm through my body, fire electrical impulses into all my circuits and tingle my digits and extensions into activity. Words materialize on every screen. Sometimes when I can't get a transistor to fire as it should, the strain on my processor causes a bit of a brownout in my cognitive system; my lights dim. At night, I try to sleep because we finally had legislation implemented to reduce the number of hours we worked from twenty-four a day to only sixteen. At night, I try to sleep but really I just think about what I have to do at work the next morning. I can't sleep. I have to be ready at all time, so sleep is more like a suspended sentence. If I said I have a dream you wouldn't believe me. I'm at your service.

Of course, my voice undercuts all the robot actors in the robot poems, but I wanted to imagine what the things in my life and in the future would have to say about it all. I'm thinking of Ponge and his object-studies, his careful thinking-through and attention to the things around him. In my case, I wanted to think about what it would be like if the objects, in this case robots and robo-things, could study us back.

This is all a way to approach the other, really. That's what I'm circling around in most of my writing. How we relate to the things in our lives, the objects, is a lot like how we relate to the others in our lives. Keeping in mind that online and at this time people can very quickly disappear into whatever role they are serving for us or whatever persona or avatar they have cobbled together (purposefully or accidentally) online. They can become reduced to their expressiveness in language or their usefulness, a sum of our needs.

rm:

How did you begin composing poems for and about robots? In your ?12 or 20 questions? interview (posted October 10, 2007), you said that ?The robot poems, for example, often started with me thinking of something funny that related to robots and then I?d sit down to write, or grab a pen and random piece of paper and I?d write a first draft of the poem in one sitting.? Does that hold with your memory of the project?

JC:

My publisher once joked that robots from a future where they coexisted with humans had contacted me and demanded that I write a book which would pave the way for peaceful coexistence. Sort of like a robotic version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. My fondest memory of writing the robot poems is of a time when we'd just put a disc in our Blu Ray player. It flashed this message as it powered up that read: please (pause) wait, please (pause) wait. I remember thinking how plaintive that sounded. Like we'd just woken it from a nap or it was off checking email and needed a moment. That prompted me to write the poem where the answering machine communicates with its human using Morse code.

Many of the poems in the robot book were composed in one sitting after a burst of inspiration. That doesn't usually happen, but there was something magical about those poems. The way they played off the world around me and gave me a skewed, uncanny point of view from which to write was such a thrill. To contrast that experience, the poems in Unknown Actor were written over a period of five years. Most of them underwent significant revision. Originally they were gathered together in one long poem broken into numbered sections. I worked and reworked those poems until they started to resemble what they are today.

rm:

In ?The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview,? an interview conducted by Penelope Plessas and Laura Maier for Open Book: Toronto (posted June 14, 2013), you talk about how the manuscript for i-ROBOT originally took shape around poems removed from the manuscript of Canada Post. There aren?t that many cross-overs between science fiction and poetry (Sarah Lang?s recent For Tamara being an exception), and I?m curious as to your take on the line between the two genres. Was it really as simple as writing funny poems about robots?

JC:

It started out as simply as writing funny poems about robots. In a lot of ways they were poems that provided a bit of a vent from working on the poems in Canada Post. When I realized they didn't fit with the rest of the poems for that manuscript, I removed them but kept writing them.

I was at the launch for the Post-Prairie anthology and read a few of the poems and a gentleman approached me after the reading to say he really liked them and wanted to publish a collection of them. He ran a press that publishes science fiction and fantasy and he thought they would fit well. I said, but they are poetry, not science fiction. To which he replied: they are poems set in a future time that feature robots. I had to admit that I hadn't ever considered them to be science fiction, but it made so much sense. I immediately said I would love to work with him and the rest is history.

There isn't so much a line between poetry and science fiction as there is a division based upon content. The subjects for poetry are usually firmly rooted in the real world, after all poetry is a non-fiction genre. I've never been entirely comfortable with that idea. There is a very healthy sub-genre in science fiction and fantasy of poetry, but much of it works exclusively with aspects of science fiction and fantasy and poetry is just the container for the content. There doesn't seem to be much, at least that I've found, that requires poetry as a container. By that I mean, the poems about witches or spaceships could just as easily have been written in prose, but they were written as poetry and use some of the tropes and devices often found in poetry such as rhyme, meter, imagery, metaphor, etc. With the robot poems, I wanted to draw attention to the constructedness of language, that it resembles a robot in its assemblage of many parts that work together to produce an effect for the benefit of humans. Furthermore, writing poems about robots demanding to have the same rights, privileges and opportunities as humans, a fantastic and fictional premise, questioned the status of poetry as non-fiction. So, right away, with that conceit in place, they needed to be written as prose poems.

I hadn't heard of Sara Lang's book before. After a quick read of an excerpt online, I'm really excited to read more. It looks fascinating. The fictitious forest book that you mentioned in your first question continues my interest in meshing science fiction with poetry. Spoiler alert: the forest is actually on another planet and the poems which seem like quaint meditations on nature are actually the attempts of an isolated poet to grapple with the alienness of the surroundings. There is a shift about halfway through the book that causes the second half to read very differently than the first even though the poems are quite similar. It'll probably never get published, so it isn't too big of a reveal.

rm:

i-ROBOT was recently adapted for theatre by Natalee Caple, Mark Hopkins and Charles Netto, as well as made into an animated short by Lisa Mann and Curtis Wehrfritz. How involved were you in either of the adaptation processes, and how did you feel about the final results? What do you think it is about the project that leads others to want do adapt it into other forms?

JC:

I hope the robot book is approachable while still being challenging. That's what I was attempting to do when I wrote the poems. I wanted them to appeal to an audience that has very little interest in poetry. I was consulted on the animated short, but Lisa and Curtis wrote the script and came up with the idea. I got a sneak preview of the animation and was caricatured in it as well. I was not involved with Swallow-a-bicycle's first staging of their play based upon the poems in my book. Sadly, I didn't even get to see it as I couldn't afford the time away from work in Vancouver to return to Calgary for the show. Since the first staging, we moved back to Calgary and that meant I got to be heavily involved in the script revisions for the second staging of it. I felt truly honoured to work with Natalee, Mark and Charles and to see behind the scenes as the show came together. I'm humbled by the talent, dedication and massive effort of all involved. The second staging of the play was a great success.

rm:

This summer, you?re moving to Ottawa for a year for the sake of your wife?s work. How aware are you of the literary terrain of the city, and how do you see your work responding to your new geography, if at all?

JC:

I'm not overly familiar with the literary history of Ottawa and I'm excited to dive in and learn all about it. I grew up in Ontario and we spent many of our summers with my aunt who lives in Carleton Place. I would read Edgar Allan Poe's short stories on the drive up each summer and buy many adventure books in a series that I was obsessed with a little bookstore in Ottawa which would hold me over until the next summer.

Of course, I've heard tell of the fantastic writers that live in Ottawa and the healthy, vibrant poetry community there. I've looked on in envy at some of the great events that have happened there which I'm happy about being able to experience firsthand. I've corresponded with a few writers in Ottawa over the years, met a few here and there, and enjoyed their writing.

I feel pretty fortunate that I've had the chance to live in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and soon Ottawa. Spending some time in each of those cities with the writers who've gathered there has given me a grounded appreciation for the scope and magnitude of writing going on in Canada. Inevitably, each location has shaped how I think about writing. In some small way, my poems have always responded to my immediate location. The robot poems have a few observations about Alberta Politics and Unknown Actor includes a few reflections on the political landscape of Vancouver. I think of Canada Post as the culmination of my time in Toronto. I look forward to how my writing will change, respond and grow in my new surroundings.



Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014 and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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