Arc’s current Poet-in-Residence Rob Winger spoke to poet, journalist, professor and Groucho-Marxist David McGimpsey. McGimpsey is the author of four acclaimed collections of poetry, including most recently Li’l Bastard, published in 2011 by Coach House.
Rob Winger: Like many Canadian writers, you seem to wear a lot of hats: writer, musician, professor, Yankees-fan-by-default. What do you write in the official, formal space for “occupation” at customs?
David McGimpsey: I’m tempted to say “Yankees fan by the grace of God!” but I honestly just say “Teacher.” Hard to imagine the life of bad decisions that would lead one to tell a customs official “I am a poet!”
RW: I’m sure the border guards would ask you to get out and open your trunk if you did! That word, “poet,” has always seemed like a weirdly loaded term to me. Do you feel that way, too?
DM: Once, before flying to Vegas, I was asked to recite a poem when I said I taught poetry for a living. I recited Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” which I honestly thought should have earned me instant U.S. citizenship. “Poet” is a weirdly loaded term, as I suppose all occupational tropes are. What’s the Groucho Marx line? Somebody came on You Bet Your Life, told Groucho they were a poet and Groucho said “So, you’re out of work?” I am proud to be a poet, though, and it’s only really weird when other poets believe being a poet is a role-playing exercise and, independent of their actual writing, really believe they have “poetic thoughts.” Even then, it’s understandable and probably not nearly as unfortunate as considering what the fireman trope is to the unsexy, overweight fireman.
RW: Like all smart comics, you’ve always got serious, considered commentary lurking just below the surface of your jokes or answers or poems. That mix of pride and disgust, seriousness and levity (and whatever other smart binaries you might imagine) pepper your new book, Li’l Bastard. Can you say something about how that kind of comedy developed for you as a writer, or for this book in particular?
DW: A little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, Donnie & Marie? I don’t really consider Li’l Bastard to be comedic—however stocked with jokes and observations about diet soda. I doubt I could say much that wasn’t backformed about the “development” of its humor as my intentions were to write a book of sonnets and developments in rhetoric would be shaped by formal concern. I’m glad if there’s a range of tone. I like making jokes, but Li’l Bastard was written in all seriousness. I like things that are happy-sad as a rule but the shifting of emotional register seemed crucial to me in order to withstand the episodic regularity of the sequence. One hundred and twenty-eight poems is a lot of poem. I didn’t want the narrating voice to be Lorne Greene tempering all extreme experience with wise authorial pronouncement but wanted the voice to be moveable and human. It would strive to be like my own voice but this voice wouldn’t say “oh God! This chicken is delicious!” as much as I do.
RW: I definitely get that, and part of what makes the book work so well, I think, is the double-take of its insights and punchlines. The voice you do use in the book is up to date and unafraid to talk about what we all see all the time: Lady Gaga, Boner from Growing Pains, Twitter. How much of that was an attempt to counter that Lorne-Green-tempering-all-extreme-experience voice we often hear in poetry?
DM: None of the desire to talk about Gap khakis or Jersey Shore self-consciously attempts to address or react to dominant modes of cultural rhetoric in poetry. I’ve only ever wanted to write poetry that sees itself as part of a long artistic tradition that exists in a free market. I’ve obviously been made aware of certain elitist discouragements along the way, and though I have been startled by the pompous certainty of these discouragements in the past, I never seriously considered detouring from trying to get stronger in the mode of expression that suits me best. I’m a middle-class intellectual who is educated in literature, but, I was raised in Ville D’Anjou (a working class suburb in the east end of Montreal) and I was brought to literature in the context of always being encouraged to participate in our actual culture (TV, rock music, ballgames, soda pop, politics, clothes, and so on) and I never thought of poetry as a thing to “cure” me of my background and the things I love. For me, there remains no difference in being grateful to have seen game six of the 2011 World Series and being grateful to have read the poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. That much said, I have absolutely nothing against boutiquey lyric poems (I like hoarfrost as much as the next person) and nothing against purely conceptual poetry (I too want to know how many anagrams one can build out of “hoarfrost”).
RW: Same here. I’ve noticed, though, that many writers seem to talk about poets who hate certain kinds of poetry, but I’m not sure how often I actually meet one of these poets, pigeonholed into some rigid, inflexible poetics. Most folks that I consider to be good writers want to read and try a variety of books that encompass a lot of different topics and methods. Do you find the same?
DM: It’s easy to say that Canadian poetry is a sentimental stream of fragmentary lyrics about winter breezes through Saskatchewan barns but, by now, that’s just a cliché that the practitioners of other clichés employ to fill the room with smoke. I never have met a writer who seemed super-involved with their own manifesto-version of their poetics, but then again I imagine if you met Karl Marx you’d probably more likely be having a nice conversation about a salmon cake. All writers complain about the success of other writers and that’s no big deal. It’s a business where inflated ego and pretentiousness are as job-related as tendonitis is for a tennis player. I kind of look away from the more prominent argumentations of poetics in Canada as they feel a little inside-baseball to me—not really a discussion of literary things but about the material construction of the society poets occupy. All that feigned surprise and outrage when favour-trading is exposed—all those open-sesame theories which allow us to gossip in the way we so love to do. There’s an episode of an old cop show called Naked City where Burgess Meredith plays the old, Yeatsian poet who is cruelly tossed aside by the new generation represented by a more be-bopping poet played by a young Alan Alda. The poetry of both characters is equally repulsive. I don’t really mind if everybody gets along and I don’t believe that writers form a “community.” I am not trying to popularize poetry or switch somebody’s well-bought-for Chateau Lafitte with Diet Sprite.
RW: Writing with some sort of agenda can be a pretty crippling proposition. But by naming them sonnets, you’ve also got, in these “chubby sonnets,” particular limitations in mind before you get going, right? What does that do to you when you sit down to write, and can you say something about how these sonnets got chubby in the first place?
DM: This form, four quatrains, is a form I’ve used since my first book. I think I settled on the size and shape because they fit nicely on one page of the notebooks I used to write in. I used to write lots of 14-line sonnets when I was in college. Some trad/formal but most using a form with two quintets plus two couplets. I loved Wyatt’s poetry as well as Sidney’s Astrophel & Stella, and loved the very insistence of episodic iteration in sonnet sequences. That is to say, the sonneteer would work over a problem in an individual poem and no matter how tight the resolution, the condition of the sequence persists. The first poems I ever wrote which were noticed in some way and published in a literary journal were sonnets I wrote about Batman. But I was writing those sonnets not in some known pursuit of literary light or to gain credit in a writing class—I was writing those to cut the edge off of life. That practice is where, I’m sure, the rhetoric of my work was shaped. I started to read Berryman and, later, Lowell, both of which influenced my work and Li’l Bastard is, in some part, a homage to those old bastards. Dream Songs is also a sonnet sequence in its own right, and Lowell’s History used a 14-line stroke to keep the poet’s varied impulses in place. It was years after the Batman stuff, writing mostly monologues about TV characters in tercets, that I was turning again to 16-line poems, but ones that were now more honestly incorporating my less “poetic”” concerns. They were funny, they were mean, there were references to Avril Lavigne—that kind of thing. I left the form alone for a while but wanted to return to it with full dedication for this book. In every way, Li’l Bastard is the book I wanted to write when I was 20 but was too stupid to.
RW: What, if anything, have you read in recent years that’s affected your writing like Wyatt or Sydney or Lowell or Berryman did during what people usually call the “formative” years?
DM: I assume you don’t mean Shine, the autobiography of Star Jones. I really don’t know if anything adheres to a writer quite like the ones in your formative years. Those writers are like the college basketball coaches of your writing life. You know, good at play calling but also those “life lesson”” types. More recently I’ve followed the work of a handful of poets (David Kirby, Amy Gerstler, A.R. Ammons, Jennifer L. Knox, Catherine Bowman) and their work makes me happy to keep chugging along but it’s mostly the old bastards. Virgil is newer to me and his poetry is perhaps the work that’s left the most impression, particularly The Eclogues. Artie Lange’s biography Too Fat to Fish is also, actually, excellent.
RW: Last question: what are you working on these days?
DW: I’m working on my music. I just wrote a song called “Pie Machine.” It seriously rocks.
Rob Winger is the author of the poetry collections Muybridge’s Horse and The Chimney Stone.