Great Piles of Life: Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott’s Decomp

Through their collaborative Decomp (Coach House Books) Vancouver poet Stephen Collis and Port Moody, British Columbia poet Jordan Scott seem to have composed both a project, and a document of that project. As the press release tells us: “In five distinct ecosystems in British Columbia, Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott left copies of Darwin’s book out in the open. A year later, they found them in various states of decomposition; each ecosystem allowed nature to recompose the text in very different ways. Just as evolution endlessly rewrites the DNA codes (the texts) of life, the poets found themselves with a repeatedly rewritten Darwin.”

Opening the collection with a collaboratively-written essay, they place their project in a clear conceptual framework, citing a series of disappearing frameworks, both literary and ecological. Theirs is a curious approach to seeing how nature interacts with the physical materials of texts, something Kemptville, Ontario poet Chris Turnbull has been experimenting with as well over the past few years, through her r/oute (a project she’s taken to documenting online at As they write in their introduction: “A book, it turns out, is the most fragile thing of all.” They compose their extended poetic sequence as a series of field notes, writing out a variant on Fred Wah’s “utanikki,” or “poetic journal,” to describe the application of their project, as well as their results. “To take a precise example, we might make a detailed examination of what is meant by the immensity of the forest. / That we live in great density. Species difficult and deeper into great piles of life fomenting.”

Together, Collis and Scott combine photos, text and erasure to produce a series of accidents and decompositions, documenting their movements and allowing a series of naturally-occurring processes to become a collaborator in the final text, highlighting not only the fragility of books, but the mutability of what might be possible to do with books and with text outside of the boundaries of human intervention. In their “Coda,” they even include a series of essay-like conclusions, hidden among the fragments: “Decomposition as a way to imagine language turned in / on itself (self-sustaining or self-consuming?); inevitable / new formations; wordling flesh. Variations of body and / in letters, too. Weather working the material. Its own/ devices. A kind of asymmetrical determinism.”

As much as it is an exploration of both the poetic journal and naturally-occurring “erasure” text, Decomp is an acknowledgment akin to a celebration of the variety and range of ecosystems that exist in British Columbia, from rainforest to desert. One might wonder how such a project might have differed given an alternate, or even a far larger, geographical boundary. Perhaps that is entirely beside the point.


rob mclennan’s recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). He runs above/ground press and Chaudiere Books and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews at



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