John Nyman types, speaks, and constructs poetries ranging from lyric verse through to visual and conceptual forms. His poems and short fiction have been featured in a variety of print and online journals and collections—most recently including Rampike, (parenthetical), ditch, and Cordite Poetry Review—and he has performed at and/or co-hosted several prominent reading series. Since summer 2014 he has also designed and self-published innovative, small-scale chapbooks featuring visual and experimental poetry.
Originally from Toronto (where he often still appears at barroom open mics and house-readings), John is currently studying towards a PhD in Theory and Criticism at Western University with a focus on postmodern theories of language and contemporary conceptual writing. In the past he has served as Senior Fiction Editor of Existere, a biannual art and literature journal published out of York University’s Vanier College, and Arts Editor of Excalibur, York’s campus newspaper. John is also a graduate of York University’s undergraduate program in Creative Writing.
John Nyman lives in the body, the body lives in the world, and the world lives in the text.
More information and links to past publications can be found at https://johnnymanwriting.wordpress.com/.
Four Poems by John Nyman
When You Need Water
If the CD skipping in my old-time walkman
sounds like water,
And the me inside is diving out my breastplate hollow to bathe
in the cesspool at the TV,
And his skin is pruny as a thumbprint,
And the blinking light blinks sky blue,
And I’m unpardoned on the wicker sofa,
Well, even the blackboard night might be bigger than my future.
In total, it takes a whole lotta water to breathe.
By the power invested, by the energy skittered away,
Along the rivulet of the second dimension
of the ass-bare moon,
After the water ransacked the follows,
Darling, you cross at my side until the changing of the water,
Though I’ve never really been there in the moment,
And it’s also still visible in the rude distance,
And it has never been explained clearly.
Hold it a bullet.
If the smoke is on the water,
If the smoke is beautiful, and by that I mean,
If the last of the pack tastes a lot like an ice cream sundae
just in time,
You’ve caught me right in the middle of something,
’Cause I’m a stone-cold shame just a-lookin’ for some fame,
Or a pointy-haired boss bogarting the water cooler.
Or noodling over a secret,
In a hole in a log at the bottom of the harshest part of the Outback.
[originally published in The Quilliad 2]
I saw a pregnant woman on the bus
collect a blonde-haired, red-tied ponytail.
I read a sign that advertised a sale
for men’s suits, catching troughs of sun glow
in its gloss and spitting it back out into
the sky. I watched a music video
that sang: seventy millions of people
do this, do that, keeping the number hallowed,
the notes shivering with the strength of the sum
of all those unique humans, differences swallowed
together. The best numbers are not one,
though you say we have that many minds and souls.
I’d dissolve if I argued, guarding thoughts too much
like zebra mussels or flocks of white seagulls.
[originally published in The Quilliad 1]
I’ve Started Waking Up Earlier
One summer I spent every night
awake and wandering. Watched the cartoon
channel that flowed all hours—decades-old
shows draining black seconds. Saw
“One Froggy Evening” for the first time,
the Broadway-singing frog’s phonograph songs
tearing down a world as fast as Acme Construction.
I held my thin, black sleeve
to the lamp. The light shone straight and strong
through every fibre,
emblazoned an asteroid cloud of cotton dust
in my clothes.
The mornings, now, are like smoke,
even though I’m cleaner and more alert.
I eat breakfast now. I might be nostalgic
if I knew what it meant, but the word won’t form
in high numbered hours.
No shade of regret floats like bacteria in this
crisp air, though there is regret.
I solved the mystery of the dark thump
at my door each night near 5 AM.
Sometimes I read the paper.
[originally published in Cordite Poetry Review 42]
Revolutionary Haiku Composed at Niagara Falls
If enough of us
moved fast enough, nobody
could realize we’d thawed
—not even us, fall-
ing like mortar, ten thousand
head black-spotted cows
becoming a wild, white smoke,
and then air, the air.
What power’s greater
than the still-tumbling pillar?
That which stilled “pillar.”
[originally published in Hamilton Arts and Letters 6.2]
(Interview by Kevin Heslop for London Open Mic Poetry Night)
KH: I’m trying to be aware that the poems you’ve chosen for the interview are ripe for projection in the psychoanalytic sense, and the possible danger of some lurid showmanship on my part in the responding; they feel sparse and porous and somehow like a rapid kind of complex Frogger ballet during which at a certain point a three-dimensional helicopter appears above the busy street to unfurl a rope ladder for the dancer who takes it and is carried off, and that that. And I’m feeling infantile with attempts to derive patterns or linearity: that awful phrase “and what was the poet trying to say?”, as if he had somehow failed to say exactly what was to be said, and for the experience of reading the poem to have been full and unswerving like watching a candleflame which loses dimension at the moment of photographing. Anyway, a throat-clearing to encourage digressions and any suitable restructuring of the questions to follow. I’m just trying to push first dominoes.
JN: Combining Frogger and ballet as fluidly as you do should probably seem strange. But strangely, it doesn’t to me. Characterizing a poem as a dance is tried and true, but I think a videogame is at least as apt a metaphor. Because if a poem is a dance, it’s one I dance with my body only as much as I also dance it with the technologies of language, culture, keyboards and pixels.
A brief note on “what the poet was trying to say”: I once heard a poet (I’m monstrously ashamed to admit I forget who it was) introduce one of her readings by saying, “If it’s aboutness that you need, this poem is about….” I loved it because it reminded me that aboutness is only one thing among many. At the same time, sometimes we do need it.
KH:: To sound maybe plebby, the concluding images in Not One–“I’d dissolve if I argued, guarding thoughts too much / like zebra mussels or flocks of white seagulls”– preceded by a meditation on modern monolithic culture “the sum / of all those unique humans, differences swallowed / together”, seem so intuited as to be almost dream-inspired.
The question, then, would be, I think: (1) how and to what degree do you feel your work is intuited rather than bound to linearity, (2) how for you does intuition relate to experimentation and (3) does your process of composition ever feel contiguous with, for example, the dream world, the poem in the writing an exploration of synaptic terrain?
JN: Definitely not linear, but I don’t believe in intuition. To be more specific: “intuition,” I think, is an easy out, usually invoked to explain away the need to draw connections. Now, connections may not always be direct, obvious, or logical—i.e. “linear”—they might not even be the same connections tomorrow. But they are always possible, and poetry demands them.
Connections are often described in terms of lines, so maybe I shouldn’t be so down on “linearity” after all. As long as it doesn’t mean “unilinearity,” since there are many possible lines. “Polylinearity,” or even “demi-linearity,” might suit me better.
Let’s pretend that by “intuition” in (2) you meant “polylinearity” (now I’m scrambling all kinds of lines): then I’d answer, it has everything to do with it. For me, experimentation means looking at all the possible connections (variables), precisely selecting a few to test, then registering the experience of how they play out. Experimentation is about making something happen, preferably in such a way that you can watch it happen.
To be more generous to your third question: even if I’m skeptical about “intuition,” what I’m trying to talk about has everything to do with the dream world. My dreams (and yours too, I hope!) are full of logics and narratives that would never fly in waking life. Your idea of “synaptic terrain” is especially appropriate since “synapse” refers to a junction or linkage: dreams are overstuffed with words and events that “click” or rhyme, ultimately in more ways than you’ll ever fully realize (Freud would tell you this). What’s important to me is that what happens in dreams still “happens,” even if nobody else (or not even you, yourself) can make sense of it. Dreams contain possible connections; they can be experimented with.
KH: An old remark on haiku, which I’m paraphrasing poorly: Those haiku of which we understand 90% are great haiku; but of those of which we understand 40% we never tire. What for you is the importance of ambiguity, mystery, surprise and unprecedented experimentation? How does this view effect or sculpt or relate to the relationship between your reader and your self?
JN: I’m glad your question isn’t about haiku, because I know nothing about it. The concepts you mention are very important to me, largely because they can open into their opposites. Ambiguities can be clarified, clarities can be ambiguated, etc.
I like these openings or crossings between categories. Chain a few together and you have something really interesting. Have you ever been surprised to hear someone say something so incredibly predictable? Or have you ever expected to be surprised? (Is anyone ever really surprised by a surprise birthday party?)
Somewhere around here is that 40% you speak of.
More to the point: I do value ambiguous, mystifying, and surprising writing, but I also like to interrogate our expectations and the things that seem to just “make sense.” I love being able to give the reader something to work with, even if it’s just barely enough for her to keep reading, while the rest of the poem falls apart around her. I’m after that sense of the deceptively simple (although often it’s more like simply deceptive).
I’ve left a loose end: “unprecedented experimentation.” But I don’t think I could speak of the unprecedented, especially if I were intending to respond to a question!
KH: I’ve often heard it said by actors that, after reaching a certain threshold of familiarity with one’s lines and the scene or play at hand, one can sort of mentally do away with the lines and be at liberty to explore a moment and a character in a circumstance. Considering the wealth of poetic and critical theory you carry, I wonder if you feel similarly about writing poetry, how that might manifest in the process of writing, and how practiced familiarity with theory shapes your work.
JN: I never write from the heart. I can’t and I don’t want to—in this way I guess I’m childish. When I write, I feel like I’m giving up my effort to some voice that naturally has something to say.
What you have called “liberty” I would call a demand: when I know something well (“by heart,” so they say) I also know that it isn’t mine to use or abuse as I wish. Rather, by virtue of knowing it, I owe it its own life and voice. Maybe, then, it wouldn’t make sense to say that my poems are about the things I’ve heard and read, but that they are those things.
Theory is one of these, for sure. But ultimately I’m not sure what’s special about its being called “theory.” I have to admit that I can’t understand theory to be anything besides another voice talking.
KH: In your response to the second question, terms usually attributable to the domain of mathematics come into play, as poly-linearity, logical, variables. Your work also often feels formulaic in its execution, clean and almost cubistic. I wonder if and to what degree you feel the sciences and poetry are interrelated species–”refrain” and “recursion” sharing a conceptual root, for example, likewise experimentation in both the chemical and verbal senses.
JN: I appreciate your ability to frame our dialogue in such a way that “formulaic” comes off as a compliment, even though it seems like one of the last words we’d use to describe good poetry.
One thing I take from formalism is the sense that fixed structures and “clean” execution are neither traditionalist hindrances to poetic genius nor simply fortuitous discoveries, but actually first-order vital components of a poem’s quality. For a formalist, writing is work: it’s specific and even finicky, and if it isn’t done a certain way it’s probably not worth doing. I believe there is a kinship here with scientific research and engineering, since in these fields experimentation and design must proceed through very strict structural limitations. As a result, they also tend to explicitly demand intensive and repetitive labour. But this is by no means to say that science and engineering can’t have profound and unexpected consequences—quite the opposite, in fact.
Many poets, I feel, are wishy-washy about this. I rarely hear poets speak in detail about the fine-grained, mechanical labour required to fit words to a poetic apparatus, and even virtuosically executed fixed forms tend to be explained away as little more than happy accidents. For example, “it just seemed to fit what I was doing in the poem” seems to be a common justification for attempting what are actually very difficult feats of metre, rhyme, and other constraints. Personally, I would assert that poetic form is often artificial and arbitrary, but not for that reason any less “worth it.” I wonder if, were poets to (excuse the expression) get real about their work and speak more explicitly to the formulaic components of their process, we might invite a greater degree of legitimacy for our practice as well as opening doors to collaboration and common ground with other art forms.
KH:: In your response to the fourth question, you say “my poems are [not] about the things I’ve heard and read, but... they are those things.” With this in mind: in most of the poems you provided, a narrative “I” features prominently; pursue, if you would, your distinction between subject and subjectivity.
JN: You’ve certainly found an apparent contradiction, and it is true that the narrative “I” is in some ways very important, if not fundamental, to my writing. But it’s also true, as you’ve implied, that all of this rests on a distinction between subject and subjectivity. Maybe I could try to understand it this way: For me the narrative “I” isn’t evidence that I, John (or anyone else, for that matter), am there to be discovered behind the poem; rather, I try to make the “I” a means of propulsion for the words themselves, a way to make the poem speak for itself and to speak toyou. As if it were another person—a friend or, perhaps better, a prospective lover—staring back at you from across the table. The poem is speech or speaking speech--it speaks, it says “I”—not just something that’s been said. In turn, it demands that you engage with it (and here I mean any poem, not just my own) by listening, not by deciphering.
If I were behind the poem, or even if I consciously tried to write the poem from the perspective of someone who wasn’t me, the poem would have a subject—and this is exactly what I don’t want. “Subject,” here, has at least two of its dominant meanings in English (subject as the human origin of action or thought, and subject as the matter being discussed): if the poem originates in a certain person’s perspective, the poem seems also be about that person, and then the reader’s goal would be to decipher what the poem says about that person. I already mentioned how I feel about “aboutness.” But subjectivity comes before all that. To me it really meansintersubjectivity, the power we have to appear to each other and interact with each other as if we were subjects, when in reality our subjecthood is always incomplete (we are constantly growing, changing, surprising each other, etc.).
Of course, you can always try to discover a subject behind the speaking “I.” Who are they? What do they mean? Why are they important to me? But that won’t stop them from speaking. Sometimes urgently. Please, listen.
KH: So here’s part of John Steffler’s response to a question about subverting technology with his poetry, to which I wonder if you have a response:
“Our technologies have increasingly distanced us from our immediate interaction with the world, and I think that this is most telling, from my point of view, [with regard to] the technology of language.
“I think of language as our foremost technology; it’s really the first technology that creates a symbolic reality. And this was really brought home to me in thinking about the internet and cyber space and so on. It has struck people that we know we have so called “virtual reality” with the computer screen [which] is becoming more and more capable of simulating more than just visual reality but sound and who knows what–they’ll try to adopt other artificial sense perceptions.
“I even remember being at a party talking to this cooky man who suggested: why instead of windows don’t we just have flat screens that could show us the scene outside and then we wouldn’t have to be losing heat out through the windows; we could just be surrounded by screens...
“So there is this notion of virtual reality replacing reality, but language did that hundreds of thousands of years ago when we started with symbolic sounds to represent things, and actions and states of mind and the whole syntactical and grammatical apparatus that suggests causality and possession and time and so on. That has already distanced [us] from the world–we can carry the world around in our heads as language.
“So, getting back to my interest in poetry, it’s to take language as a technology and give it back to nature in some sense, to sort of green language. To subvert language as a technology. So I accept that we are technological beings but I think that in poetry and in the arts there’s a worthy and important mission to be engaged in in trying to reverse the direction of technology and make it work to bring us back into contact with the world rather than isolate us from the world further.”
When challenged on this point, he enfleshed this idea of subversion:
“I think before humans invented language... we were closer to what the rest of the animal kingdom is like now. And creatures do sense things and are aware of things in a pre-linguistic way. And I think that we still have a great measure of that kind of communication in music, and in body language, and in many other semiotic forms apart from language. Poetry happens to be the linguistic art form or discourse that retains some of those elements inside language. And I think that it’s very clear that a poem doesn’t–I mean, why write a poem? If you just want to say something clearly in words, you write an essay. A poem enacts something. The surface meaning, the denotations of words are just on the surface; what a poem is really doing is in the sounds of the words, and in the dance of the words, and in the subliminal message that’s coming in below the denotative level, on the connotative level, on the imagistic level, on the metaphoric level and so on. And that’s what I mean about going back into language, going back to a deeper kind of signification in language. It’s just what poetry’s all about. Otherwise, why write poetry? Write an essay. Write a hist–, you know?”
Let's say the question is: To what degree, in your view, can language as a form of techonology be subverted? And to what degree, in light of Steffler's remarks, is this subversion necessary? What does technology mean to your poetry, to poetry, to the exchange between two consciousnesses, the importance of the subversion of technology, the subversion of technology by technology (i.e. language). etc.
JN: You’ve set me up for an analytical moment. Better fasten your seatbelt.
To start, I agree with Steffler on some of his major points, and I think his understanding of poetry is a necessary one. Like him, I feel poetry describes a unique possibility of finding something in language that isn’t just “what it says,” and that this is one feature that distinguishes poetry from more classically explanatory genres. Also like him, I feel that this “something” is something “enacted,” often sonically, gesturally, or subliminally. And I believe that language is a technology, perhaps even “our foremost technology.”
At other levels, though, I disagree with Steffler, and as a result I would suggest we have substantially different approaches to writing. Probably my biggest contention is this: I don’t think it is possible to “reverse the direction of technology” and get “back to nature,” so to speak (here I am paraphrasing a bit), nor do I wish to.
First, regardless of how much and how diversely a poem “enacts,” it also still “says” something; words, and even letters, have relatively denotative meanings regardless of how poetically they’re employed. Poet or no, who am I to say these denotative meanings aren’t important, when they’re what make up most of our everyday experience of language?
Second, even “nature” is a technology. It is a word, after all. When Steffler suggests the occupation of poetry is to “green language,” he uses a brand or technology—the concept of “greening”—which was developed in a relatively recent moment of human history to promote certain economic, societal, and cultural goals. “Greening” isn’t non-technological; it’s a way to reorient the way we live with technology by introducing new directions—in many cases, healthier and more beautiful directions. Poetry can do this, too.
To summarize all this: unlike Steffler, I don’t write poetry to avoid what words “say,” or to try to subtract technology from language in order to get “back” to reality. I write poetry because words say things, because they’re a technology that makes reality. Again, it’s all about polylinearity.
In this sense your idea of “subversion of technology by technology” is closer to what I want, although I’d probably drop the word “subversion.” I find it harder and harder to understand why we would want to make enemies of concepts within the abstract sphere of poetics. Better to make enemies of concrete things, like politicians who steal our rights and corporations who steal our money. In poetry you have to compromise, because this is the only way to communicate. And I don’t just mean you should compromise, but more that you can’t even avoid it, since as soon as you say a word its meaning is determined as much by anyone else’s interpretation as by your own. Actually, this may be what I find so special about poetry compared to other art forms. In poetry you always share your ideas with your readers, since you need to share a language to write anything in the first place. You never get to make up all the rules yourself, since they’re literally already written into your medium.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, enclosed terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: Doors: 6:00 to 6:30 (It's a restaurant.) Event begins at 7:00
THE FEATURED POETS: Our two features, John Nyman and Penn Kemp, will open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A. See Penn Kemp's bio, poems and interview.
OPEN MIC: Following the two featured poets in the first hour and the intermission, open mic poets will read until 10:30. There may be a second intermission after the first 15 have read. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
COVER: By donation (in donation jar on back table, or use Donate Button on website Donate Page). Donations are our only source of income to cover expenses.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates at the event receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society.