Andy Verboom is from subrural Nova Scotia and currently lives in London, ON, where he organizes Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series, and edits Word Hoard, a journal of creative and academic dialogues. His poetry has won the Descant/Winston Collins Prize for Best Canadian Poem, has been shortlisted for Arc’s Poem of the Year, and has recently appeared in Vallum, The Puritan, Arc Poetry Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, and BafterC. He is the author of Tower (Anstruther Press, 2016) and co-author (with David Huebert) of Full Mondegreens, a winner of the Frog Hollow Press Chapbook Contest (2016).
after PK Page, Leonard Cohen, John Keats, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin
“Here’s the problem with eternity:
guerrilla ranks of starlight taunt us
a lonely ragged column on a forced march
our umbilical slashed
clinking, tumbling onward, bones
shaken from a burlap sack, weeping
this will never end, weeping it will.”
The doctor takes my pulse in shirtsleeves
his eyes bruised. There was a vigil to keep.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep
—I have no quarrel with eternity--
but he receives me in his attic
fingers the melon readiness of my gut
and says, friend, there is something wrong.
A batty priest through a parthenon
he patrols his stacks of paper, tweaks wheels
on a telescope. On a bank of the Weser
on a bench, lunch in lap, I vomit blood.
The reddest waterclock peals.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals
but my stomach has declared its sovereignty.
The Weser courses on unconcerned
for the whole day, for its last ten long miles.
Peeking at my blood-flecked shoes
I think did it not run into the sea
it wouldn’t run, just sit, an arctic shelf.
In the mornings, I leap from my bed
a Lazarite. Life pinches like new boots
as if I come at night, become an elf,
my body cleans and repairs itself.
The doctor takes my pulse in shirtsleeves.
He is an old doe, shuffling through white trees.
He salaams at an eyeglass and is a moth
drinking nighttime through his proboscis.
My body, he says, is a broken planet.
I grin oceanic. I heave and swell
ambergris, fields of the North Sea.
“Once things stop happening, once all verbs
become be. Then are we indissoluble
and all my work goes well.”
after one simply walks into mordor
Filming wrapped four years ago, but Ngauruhoe
still emanates that new volcano smell. (Bok choy
in roiling vinegar?) So pamphlets promise, its tephra and scree
still infomercially keen.
Ngauruhoe in the off-hours: stiff as a grandmaster automaton
between checkmates. At almost dawn
fog machines hiss and the sky-grey cabinet
catholic as the flank of an Earthbearing elephant
eases open to display light’s lattice of clockworks.
What if sublimity is the echo of the awkward
mind halfway up the foothill, through bitching pianissimo
on damp maps, narrow switchbacks, dry fat mosquitoes?
Dozens of trampers collectively blush: the cone has cuckooed into view.
Held aloft whatsits begin chirping haiku.
The doctor and I congratulate each other’s resistance
to something, shim past these choruses
to mount the rocky saddle (picture a spine like a horse’s)
where she explains the aft end, Tongariro,
is the original musical, whose hero
tenored volcanoes into parks, parks over to the nation.
This head we climb is loose adaptation.
Later, the summit. The caldera is boiled-dry thought.
The ocean meant to be visible from it
in at least two cardinal directions. The Overlander
fumes northward like a feudal salamander
recalling some other existence.
The doctor sits gnostically nibbling an apple,
excising continents as if by scalpel.
Picnic over, the doctor simply walks back to Calgary
where because of family troubles she presumably
quits then walks back to Edmonton.
Hold a steady bearing north from Wellington
where, hushed down the razor-wire esophagus
of an old New Zealand Royal Air Force base
(a few wood barracks shoved steep against a hill
near the airport’s isthmus), an entire Brazil
of prop trees players promenaded among
is being junked into car-sized styrofoam.
from Full Mondegreens
“String ’em up, avant-gardist Cow!”
String ’em up, avant-gardist Cow! Dust off the dark
switch. Hover—groaning blimp leashed to failure,
sad gumshoe’s winged piggery. Damage sells.
Cow dust’s pursed weight is peregrinating, slate-grey, down tooth-sickled pampas.
Cow dust’s in!, vague gull indicts, proselytized squawks beating air.
Jejune brigandry. Favela song.
Gull-warmed, Cow dust’s anchoring there in urban sprawl, lowing prose.
Stringed lanterns off! Seas on! So you huff fog’s gulag, sand and mud-deep etiquette.
Prows sequestered here are oysters ticking with dream.
Men—two heavies—schlep your body from being, burn it to put off the Cow crisis.
They’re noosing anarchist keywords.
Their grace rides a thunderhead at fear’s sand wall.
Their tired heart’s patronage.
String up these exigence hustlers, up sighed hopes’
hankies, up pure aortic clutter, up their proscenium sophistry. Flaunt
thought missiles and set off the holo——.
Forth, Cow! Come and stand for answerless smoke.
Anything’s desert, the rain counterfeit or forfeit
or freak surfeit, fleeting, dirigibles rigging hellward.
I wonder if you’d offer a few words about the importance of surprise (and, relatedly, of humour), and of the subversion of readers’ expectations, of syntax, of logic––Martin Amis has characterized writing as a “war against cliché”; Keats had it that “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us”.––which consistently and delightfully appears throughout your work.
I guess I’m a good Keatsian and a bad Amisian.
If I’m not surprised by a poem as I write it and then again after I’ve written it—if my palpable design upon it is actually achieved—I’m bound to hate it. I see this as a useful kind of self-loathing. Poetry, especially your own poetry, should surprise you so deeply and consistently that you keep suspecting you’re on the wrong side of history.
That said, I often feel like I’m moderating peace talks between surprise and convention. It’s an open secret that my personal sympathies lie with surprise, but I’m always asking it to demobilize, to stand down, to rein it in a bit for the sake of readability. Insofar as clichés are calcified idioms, and idioms are extensions of linguistic convention, and such conventions are the basis of mutual intelligibility, cliché can’t possibly be the enemy of surprise. Surprise needs to be reconcilable with understanding. You can’t be surprised by someone’s turn of phrase if that person is speaking an entirely private language.
Humour, I think, is a prime example of balance between surprise and cliché. The content of every joke is based on a kind of surprise (tension, incongruity, incompatibility), but every joke structure has been told countless times. You can see how humour works toward understanding when you attend a good poetry reading: each punch line (and the audience laughter that marks it as a punch line) confirms your understanding of (at least that part of) the poem.
How do you mean “on the wrong side of history”?
I mean a poem should reorient your senses—maybe just a nudge, maybe radically— such that you encounter your own assumptions as obstacles to… something… and are impelled to unassume them. This is poetry as catalyst for retroactive self-assessment, self-doubt, self-critique, etc., as occasion for staging your own miniature, internal judgment day. Maybe I should have said “…you keep suspecting you’ve been on the wrong side of history,” but that implies mere encounter with an artwork is enough to substantively change a person, that mere encounter marks a temporal break between the not-as-good pre-encounter self and the cultured-and-so-bettered post-encounter self. Change is a laborious process not an event, and that labour is the responsibility of the person not the artwork.
I wonder whether the value of humour in a poetry reading as you describe it has something to do with how a punch line makes a group cohere or signals a group’s unification––everyone in that group gets the joke and therefore shares a language––and whether you think ideal poetry therefore might be thought of as a community-forming mechanism, a coagulant?
I wouldn’t collapse language into community, comprehension into belonging. You can (and should be able to) understand someone’s position and completely disagree with or be actively oppositional toward it. Two people can laugh at the same joke for slightly or dramatically different reasons. Anyway, with regard to community, I’ll say again that poetry is a catalyst or occasion: the labour of community building—or of community splintering—is the responsibility of people not of artworks.
The admirable, heartening variety of your diction and your deep study of and fluency in various forms seem integral to your ability to surprise yourself and your reader. But both elements by definition restrict access to your work––i.e., those who haven’t put a significant amount of work into understanding the canon or aren’t inclined to consult a dictionary when necessary won’t get as much out of your work as someone who has/will––and I wonder whether you worry about or agree with that assessment. I guess the question is: only the sommelier knows what wine really tastes like?
I agree with the assessment, but I can’t see how using a broad range of techniques and resources could be, in any medium, considered a weakness. People do really hard work to psyche themselves out about poetry, sometimes putting more effort into that than into simply reading it with openness and attention. The same people, despite being gustatorily illiterate, are open to wine-tasting. Genuine readability? Absolutely. But “accessibility” is taste and effort in a false flag operation, pretending to be readability.
In reception, I think form is an independent layer of poetic quality. Any moderately good formal poem should, to my mind, have enough integrity and interior movement (enough other things going for it) that a reader needn’t be initiated into its form to appreciate how (or at least that) the poem is working. You can read and appreciate an excellent sonnet without immediately realizing it’s a sonnet, but knowing it is may, on a re-reading, deepen your appreciation for it. I’d like to say vocabulary works the same way, but it doesn’t. All I can do is shrug and say I don’t tend to consult a dictionary on a first reading either, even when I should.
I remember you took to a distinction between pre-Enlightenment poetry as having been thought of as coming from “on high” and been funnelled through or translated by a poet and post-Enlightenment poetry as generated by individual poets upwards, towards ecstasy, towards some kind of transcendence. I wonder if you’d riff on why that distinction sits well with you, or whether it still does.
It’s a gross but serviceable reduction, I guess. It could be used to critique contemporary poetry written under implicit Romantic principles (e.g., notions of genius or of ‘expression’) for maintaining an investment in theology, for taking for granted a vertical relationship between a quotidian and a sublime, an earthly and a divine. But I shy away from historical literary critique because I’m suspicious of historical narratives and because I enjoy anachronism to an indefensible degree.
Are there any sort of sidereal mantras or tenets by which you steer when you’re writing? If so, what might they be?
Bring enough to a poem that it can begin writing itself, and then be a good editor. When the poem starts being too surprising, course correct by setting it up for a joke.
Is there for you a kind of desire for mimesis in the poem such that the joke you course correct for is a metaphor for the funny absurd death towards which, as Nabokov had it, we’re heading “at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour”, or is movement towards a joke more to avoid reader fatigue? And, is your “too much surprise” threshold identical to your ideal reader’s?
Do I like making jokes because we’re all going to die horribly? Yes. Am I concerned with keeping my readers comfortable? Quite the opposite, but I’d like to keep them around long enough to make them uncomfortable.
“Olbers’s Paradox” occasionally slips into approximate heroic couplets, causing metaphors between ultimate words––eternity/us, parthenon/wheels, sovereignty/unconcerned––to emerge retrospectively. Am I projecting, or was this function intentional? What has your experimentation with formal structures taught you about your temperament as a poet?
Those particular associations are formally accidental. Though “Olbers’s Paradox” is written in form—it’s a glosa, every tenth line in it being drawn from four lines of Leonard Cohen’s “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries”—it flops only loosely around iambic pentameter. The narrator is self-possessed enough to coax out a low, slow rhythm without the aid of metrical regularity. That’s actually what formal experimentation has taught me: I’m a crusty old formalist soul who thinks he needs to justify derivations from form rather than to justify adhering to form in the first place. I don’t hold others to this standard, for the record.
Where did Tower come from? How closely does the result match your original intention?
I have a block when it comes to writing about place, probably because I have a difficult time feeling ownership over places or places’ ownership over me. So Tower was a chapbook-length attempt to, on one hand, compensate by writing instead about places in juxtaposition and, on the other, work through that blockage by way of a matrix of constraints: write each poem as a connective tissue between two cities, write in doggerel couplets, write both ekphrastically and concretely, etc. I had no idea what the end product would look like, so I would say the result matches my initial intentions both perfectly and not at all.
Do you think the difficulty for you of feeling ownership over or under a place comes from––There’s this line in Ashbery’s “The Skaters”: The balloons drift thoughtfully over the land, / not exactly commenting on it; / these are the range of the poet’s experience.––something like Northrop Frye’s “Where is here?” (i.e. Canadian identity has a distance or remoteness in its belly) or a kind of personal existential transience, or the result of your relocation from Nova Scotia, or the interrogation of the hollowness of place-identification in a colony, or any combination or none of these? Is distanciation a necessary ability for a poet?
I genuinely don’t know. It’s easy both to acknowledge the accuracy of and to feel the uncomfortably narrow privilege behind Ashbery’s balloon. It’s easy both to roll your eyes at Frye and to set him in productive proximity to a settler superego. I didn’t feel at home in NS, either. Maybe I have an obscure dissociative disorder. Maybe I should watch more sports.
You’re often astonishingly daring with your use of metaphor and simile. The effect can be stunning, as in, “What if sublimity is the echo of the awkward / mind halfway up the foothill, through bitching pianissimo / on damp maps, narrow switchbacks, dry fat mosquitoes?” It’s tough to talk about, but it feels as if you’re consistently capable of evoking ostensibly disparate auras and hues whose almost synesthetic coherence comes slantwise, through the window, say. It's an intensely captivating, enjoyably baffling tendency. Could you talk a bit about how you think of metaphor when you’re writing? I wonder, perhaps referring back to the question of subversion, whether Keats’s “negative capability” bears upon what you aim to achieve with the poem.
I’m more interested in the way you just thought about metaphor. Are you saying a fitting metaphor is the juxtaposition of two mutually unflattering colours that, nonetheless, smell great together? Or, for example, the assertion that 1 + 2 = 12 based on 1 tasting kind of like bread, 2 tasting like smoke, and 12—I don’t know—reminding you of a slice of toast? I could buy that as a certain gloss of Keatsian negative capability. I heard an interview with a synesthetic who was a prodigy at mental math because, he said, he could walk through sensory landscapes populated by number-colours. That’s a little grandiose for how I write, but I do feel out metaphors as parts of a poem’s unique micro-world, an internally consistent space even if it bears an arbitrary relationship to reality. This is why editing my own work is a matter of negotiating with surprise, a matter of partially decrypting what I’ve written in order to improve its readability. This becomes tricky, though, because I try to let these micro-worlds spin on their own. They’re only interesting, for me, if they have their own consistency. Case in point, perhaps: I have a problem with clarity.
All that said, I’ve been thinking lately about how negative capability can be invoked to justify the consideration of an artwork’s beauty (or surprise or humour or provocativeness) above the artist’s social or ethical responsibilities. Keats’s championing of beauty occurred in particular historical and political contexts; we do not share those contexts even if our contexts are descendants of them. In other words, if your guiding principle is the liberation of beauty from oppressive philosophy, then you’re acting like nothing of substance has happened in the last two hundred years. In other other words, you don’t get a pass on pretty, harmful speech because you fly a banner that says true artists don’t think through the implications of their statements.
If you were reading an ideal review of Tower, which adjectives would you come across? Have any responses to the work encouraged your re-consideration of any of the poems therein?
There’s a low bar for an ideal review of Tower: considering it’s a very imperfect work, any review would be encouraging. (I’m willing to mail out review copies! Get in touch!) I’m fully prepared to disown any poem that someone convinces me is garbage, if that’s what you’re asking.
I mean, Žižek has this thing about watching a particularly gruesome and apparently exceptional scene––he’s basically sputtering with reverence and enthusiasm while he’s describing it––in, I think, Wild at Heart between Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern, then hearing Lynch talk about it in banal and ambiguous tones––Žižek’s disappointed and says something like, “OK, now, you artist go fuck off and let the intellectuals/critics tell you what you’ve done.” I wonder if, maybe in a workshop or after a reading, someone has placed what you’ve done in a context that you hadn’t considered before but thought was insightful and convincing and surprised you.
Yes! And isn’t that the dream, that someone gives you credit for intending something wickedly clever when you either hadn’t fully thought it through or hadn’t intended it at all? I love that engagement, even if it marks a failure on my part, and I’m happy to step aside and listen to someone tell me what I’ve “done.” As a genre, the artist’s statement is less morbid only than the job application cover letter.
Have you tried or considered writing fiction? If so, how’d it go?
I grew up wanting to write expansive sci-fi and fantasy novel series, but I got too wrapped up in worldbuilding to ever get to plot or character. There’s likely an underground tunnel running between that and the kind of poetry I write. I can’t imagine the circumstances that would be required to get me writing fiction. Prison?
How did Full Mondegreens come together, and what, if anything in particular, did you and David aim to achieve with the collection?
Short version: I couldn’t find any already-inaugurated form that was doing exactly what I wanted to do with a source poem—to thoroughly and deliberately mishear the entire source, as “String ’em up, avant-gardist Cow!” does with e. e. cummings’s “spring omnipotent goddess Thou”—so I wrote a trial “full mondegreen,” shared it with some workshoppers, piqued David Huebert’s interest, read one of his, and invited him to collaborate on a chapbook-length exploration of the new form. We had different priorities when it came to selecting sources and have different aesthetics in general, but I thought that starting from two different places would help us cover more ground. I think we both wanted to challenge ourselves and to show off the form enough that someone else might commit to trying it. All I secretly want now is for someone to create a Wikipedia entry on “full mondegreen.” Is that too much to ask?
What are you reading at the moment? Has anything you've been reading lately informed your current work?
I hate this type of question because I feel the anxiety of influence more acutely in it than I do in any of my reading or writing practices. Like, “Hey, literate monkey: perform literacy!” So let’s just say that what follows are four more-or-less recent poetry collections that you should read if you haven’t already: Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear, Andy McGuire’s Country Club, Katherine Leyton’s All the Gold Hurts My Mouth, and Stevie Howell’s [Sharps]. The last two were put out by Icehouse Poetry, who is set to publish Londoner Kevin Shaw’s first collection, Smaller Hours, which will make this a list of five.
You’ve organized and hosted several instantiations of Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series. What have you aimed for with this series? How do you want it to differ from more traditional reading series?
I came up with the Couplets model—a pairing of established poet and emerging poet for collaborative writing and performance rather than sequential readings—on-the-spot in a meeting with Stan Burfield and the original venue host. I was hoping to find a niche among the well-established London Open Mic Poetry Night (with its focus on regional and ‘amateur’ poets) and Poetry London (with its focus on ‘professional’ poets from outside the region), and my experiences with Jess Taylor’s Toronto-based Emerging Writers Reading Series were a strong influence. The aim has remained this: give two poets, usually at different points in their career, an excuse to and a stage on which to collaborate. That aim, that responsibility, and that permission have been enough to differentiate it from any of the local and regional reading series. The performances are entirely unique, the poems are largely occasional, and the mentorships between older and younger poets have the potential for lasting impact. That’s really cool, and I’m happy to deflect all the credit for this to the participants.
WHERE: Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: March 1st, 2017. Poetry begins at 7 pm.
THE FEATURED POET: Andy Verboom opens the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, 15 open mic poets will read until 9:30 at the latest, intermission at about 8:00. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the readers' list, which is on the book table at the back––first come, first served.
COVER: Pay What You Can (in 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 The Ontario Poetry Society.