A conversation with Ken Babstock
Ken Babstock was born in Newfoundland in 1970 and grew up in the Ottawa Valley. His first collection of poems, Mean, won the Atlantic Poetry Prize and Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize. His second, Days into Flatspin, won a K. M. Hunter Award. His third, Airstream Land Yacht, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Griffin Poetry Prize, and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Babstock’s poems have been translated into several languages, including German, French, Dutch, Serbo-Croation, and Czech. We met to talk mid-morning in the last week of January at a coffee bar in Babstock’s east-end Toronto neighbourhood. He’d completed the edits toward his fourth collection, Methodist Hatchet, not long before.
KS: This billboard right across from the café seems indicative of what can be so confusing and bemusing about the culture. Maybe it’s more pronounced in a city like this is. A billboard with text on it that reads, “Actual View Looking West,” and on it are portrayed all kinds of things that don’t exist yet, and it’s not even looking west! The word actual is a selling feature. It’s not virtual, or imagined, it’s not yet to come, it’s actual, and this sort of thing seems to me [gesture of confusion]. In Methodist Hatchet, there’s a sense of this gesture, like, “What the hell is going on?”
KB: Yeah, the “actual view looking west” is, like, three different camera angles spliced together to form something very obviously not actual. So why insert actual? It’s like virtual. I remember thinking, at the end of the poem “Second Life,” the line, “I don’t talk this way in Real Life” felt fair enough. It’s a play on “the voice of men speaking to men” in Wordsworth, but it’s a poem about Second Life, about virtual reality. And it’s true that a poem is a kind of virtual reality, it’s just the temper inside those two terms, or the tone, or weight you give those two. They can be applied to the speaking poem itself. Or the voice in the poem. Dean Young talks about this too, and Rimbaud. Who or what the hell is the “I” that speaks the poem? It’s certainly not the me here, or the me that brushes his teeth.
KS: I guess that in a sense what a poem does is present us with an “actual view looking west” when there’s nothing actual about it.
KB: And one wants it to be a freedom, and maybe it has something to do with control, and power, in that we want to retain some of it, don’t want it to be solely the province of developers or advertisers. It is originally something we did as individuals, to imagine what is not and to imagine what could be and to aggressively cling to and remind ourselves, as readers and writers and just humans with imaginative faculties, that this is ours, not theirs.
KS: All these manifestations of commerce and culture and art and philosophy and politics are not things outside of us, that strip us of agency, and one of the things the book does is take them as an opportunity for imagination, and to treat them with the same kind of engagement as with one’s own feelings or memories. These things don’t happen without us.
KB: They are part of how we phenomenologically apprehend the world now. I think about points in world history when new materials became part of what was driving the engine of an art, like when architecture latched on to glass, or when pop art latched on to plastic, or whatever, and they all had culturally different moods and strategies behind them, like high modernism had that kind of drive to utopian madness behind it. I don’t feel like I’m partaking in the same thing, but I was consciously aware that material was everywhere, that it is everything, there is nothing excluded by virtue of what it is. It is all material and it has particular textures. So using quotation or commerce or reference or joke or dream, I wanted it to feel like it was an acceptance of material. Then one’s own position vis-à-vis those materials could come in implicitly. The critique will happen anyway. If there’s something missing in the poem, it’s that I may not have allowed enough in, all of these things that represent a wider terrain on which language can go and do something.
KS: The poems really resist the “authentic” as opposed to the “inauthentic.” That, for example, the rural, or wilderness, or country, is authentic and the urban environment is inauthentic. Or that one’s own feelings are authentic, and the language of advertising and political soundbites is inauthentic.
KB: In the poem “Nottawasaga,” there’s a tiny sketch of a human drama that happens on the shoreline. A fence had been built down to the waterline, arguments ensued with the neighbouring cottagers, a mob appeared, a chainsaw was unleashed, and someone sawed through this particular cottager’s wooden fence. Now, in the poem, that could have all been drawn out in different terms, but the word Husqvarna—sadly it’s just a fragment, a single sentence unto itself—but the word Husqvarna seemed to embody linguistically something that wouldn’t have happened if I would have said “and then buddy pulled out a chainsaw.” The word Husqvarna—I keep thinking about The Master and Margarita, is the devil walking around, you know? The word Husqvarna is chewing through the fence. So I felt that language had opened itself sometimes. And I felt it had opened itself by running a risk of—and I’m sure there are all kinds of points where it tipped over to excess in the book—referencing the real world almost at the level of thinned-out, not pop, but cultural sediment. But because the risk of flood is there, the effect, I hope, is of charging the way these materials inhabited the poems.
KS: The references themselves have intellectual and emotional weight, and a cumulative effect. You know that you’re probably going to be challenged for the scope of your references . . .
KB: Yeah, there’s always something to find to slap somebody around about. My favourite from the last book was, “Babstock writes about nothing. I wish he would write about something.” I forget who this was. “I wish he would write about something.” History, hot air balloons, anything at all, why does he write about nothing? And I remember thinking to myself, That is what I write about. And I’m gonna write a better book about nothing. [laughter] Because it’s a big subject. You moron. Whoever you were.
KS: The ability to write about nothing in great detail.
KB: Yeah, I’m sure it’ll annoy some people, there’s not much I can do about it. There wasn’t any other way for me to inhabit the world, the poems, this time around. I was practically unconscious of the names in the first twenty pages of the book. I did not know they were there until we’d started discussing the book and I went back and started reading and starting ticking them off and by page 20 I was in a fit. But on the other hand, I remember knowing that the last book was trying to represent the kind of bottlenecking or trap that theories of consciousness had gotten themselves into. Because it inevitably explodes back out into the social, or the nexus of interrelatedness, which just evokes the other, and so I remember knowing the “other,” —the people, the social, the ethical, whatever—was going to somehow make its way into this book. I wanted that to happen. I didn’t know it was going to be on so many various levels. I think humans, others, even named others, appear at the level of the symbolic in the book and at the level of actuality in the domestic and in love, right up to puppetry. I didn’t know they were going to flood in, I guess, but they have, what am I going to do about it? J. M. Coetzee’s gonna sue me. [laughter] Why is J. M. Coetzee in my book? [laughs]