I Want to Make Things Difficult Again: An Interview with Jeff Latosik

I Want to Make Things Difficult Again: An Interview with Jeff Latosik

“…Now they’ve pulled
out the basement that was in the brick
and now they’re breaking windows

in a nucleus.

From “The Backwards Builders”
Scroll down for the rest of the poem

Toronto poet Jeff Latosik’s first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger, is a heady circus show of surrealist gambit and apologetic memoir. Using every available part of the language, the collection expands on a traditionally lyrical base to include the kind of big ideas few of his peers can set to music. It’s a wonderful book: keen, variegated, and value priced at a recession-friendly twelve bucks.

Jeff exchanged pleasantries with Books@Torontoist’s Jacob McArthur Mooney earlier this month. What follows is the result of that conversation. We hope you like it.

Jacob McArthur Mooney: Thanks for doing this, Jeff. The title of the book is very striking. I wonder what it’s meant to describe. Does it point to the ethic of the poems, their aesthetic, or something else? Are the poems tiny, frantic, and strong? Are you trying to be all these things while writing them? What is the ideal you’re striving to in those three brave adjectives?

Jeff Latosik: With many thanks in return and kudos to this great series.

The title here is probably a good place to start, and I hope I don’t disappoint or confuse by beginning with the suggestion that in fact the title does not really describe the poems very well. Perhaps in some loose, tentative manner—and I do not mean the gaff of suggesting the poems are “strong,” though I know you are a good person and will forgive me.

However, that is not to say the title is a complete failure. What worked in it for me was how described a movement— of something (in the poem I cribbed it from, a cockroach) getting away, out, through, and so on. That survival, ingenuity, durability – that’s the engine of life. Looking back, I know that’s what the poem writing process entailed for me: a chase or, to put it in a way that will make me seem like less of a philanderer, a kind of reaching out for something (maybe that still doesn’t work…). I suspect this feeling is not unique to poetry and constitutes a larger project of imposing form/structure etc. on the difficult world.

JMM: The idea of imposing structure is an interesting one. Your poems tend to have little obvious formal signifiers (the odd sonnet, maybe, or near-sonnet, but that’s it). However, they do tend to look, sound, and feel quite controlled. At their best, the form of these poems approaches that ideal of the “invisible and essential” part of the piece, something you can’t easily put your finger on, but you couldn’t imagine attempting to remove. I wonder how you look at form, but also about your take on the more philosophical bent of that question. Basically, does a poem “contain” itself, or attempt to remain “uncontained” by itself?

JL: There are a number of ways of addressing this question. First, we might want to distinguish unique metrical forms (sonnet, pantoun, villanelle, etc.) and what you describe as “controlled verse.” Controlled verse is just the Frostian edict that good verse isn’t just free and the ways of addressing prosody are many.

I’ll say that I’ve many times felt the danger of controlled verse, which is the feeling that one’s work is too fawned over, like china in a cabinet. If you’ll grant me a flighty analogy here, when one is learning to sing and they begin to breathe from the diaphragm, often an excess of power is generated and manifests itself as excessive loudness—that’s the misuse of form, or, of too much control. And this is why I admire Don Paterson, for example, because he writes with the attention to the meeting point of technique and talent that a musician has (I think there are also a number of Canadian writers who do this well).

Robert Lowell once described the transition from his early work to Life Studies/For the Union Dead by saying that he couldn’t fit his experience into tight metrical forms. I do like this. But, upon reading those books, one can see that the antidote was not to sway completely in the direction of formlessness: it was to feel and write through the tension of rationality and irrationality that makes great art and to write out from that.

If you’ll bear with my plebeian pace, I may need some clarification on the distinction between a poem containing itself and attempting to remain uncontained. Or, I may ask—is an answer to that important?

JMM: I guess that question is only nominally about form, in that it’s not about the nuts and bolts of metre and rhyme, but more the overarching philosophy of whether a poem is a container or an uncontainable thing. I guess a more specific example of the problem, and one divorced from my attempts to limit this to a discussion only of “form,” would concern endings. Some endings internalize the poem, make it finite; these are the denouements of Petrarchan Sonnets and pop songs. While other endings push the poem outward, into unsaid future musings. These are the climaxes of, say, certain Shakespearian end-couplets and symphonies. Some endings (and, by extension, some poems), self-summarize, which is a way of saying they contain themselves, or as Lowell said in your example, they “fit” the poet’s experience inside themselves. Others can be launch pads to new considerations.

In essence, which of these images best represent what your work tends toward?

JL: Let me try to formulate my own understanding of this distinction. In Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water” we have this final stanza:

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

That last line is summative or self-referencing right? I probably wouldn’t call the poem self-contained because of that, though. The idea of containment is no doubt a leitmotif in poetry, though as a way of speaking about a poem containing itself par excellence, I think that perhaps no poem does, because poetry is an exercise in being confusingly clear. That means its meaning is secured not only by its literal dimension but the host of denotative meanings that bubble just underneath—and beyond—it.

As far as my own poems go, I’m not sure, though looking back on my book I see that your instinct is bang on, as my last poem is an abstract piece that involves a box (I assure you it is very exciting). But in that poem, I try to formulate the reading of a poem as a place where the reader brings his or her own experience and perspective to place inside the poem, completing a kind of contract. Maybe that’s naive—surely, as Paterson says, we can read a poem into anything. Oh well. Ladies and gentleman, please tear out the final poem of my book (should you choose to purchase it) until further notice.

JMM: I guess my stubbornness with regard to containment comes out of the idea of the poem as an object, supported by those three adjectives that make up your title.

Perhaps as an extension of this conversation, I thought we could touch a bit on the collection as an object, as well. There are a handful of recurring motifs (or leitmotifs, if you will) and ongoing thematic concerns in the book (off the top of my head: bugs, surburbia, family, physical destruction, relationships, and likely others). However, no part of the collection feels thematic, per se. I wonder how you manage “aboutness” at the level of the collection itself. Essentially, this book is about the poems within it, but a certain prevailing sensitivity builds out of the fact that all of said poems share the same author. Is this something you take as natural and unalterable, or is the exact degree of thematic self-consciousness something you wanted to manage?

JL: There’s very little “aboutness” management going on in TFS. I wish there were: “aboutness” makes the book a lot easier to talk about and would no doubt make your job here easier too.

I do take preoccupations (if that’s what you mean) to be unalterable, which in the end is a kind of save —yes, as it turns out, I know someone at the wedding, though she is a distant cousin of the groom.

One no more escapes a constellation of themes, or a timbre of voice, than they do a personality. A “thematic” collection as you’ve used it I think means a sharpening, of content, of conceit, though I do believe one must refrain from the impulse to make something hierarchical or demonstrative from this. Such an impulse discounts or becomes prescriptive about the ways in which a division of parts can work toward a larger whole. We will never figure out which one is the right one.

What does someone without a sales pitch do? Maybe no sales pitch can be a sales pitch too. (Yes, it rhymes, shut up…)

JMM: Unless the pitch is lame and flat. There’s simply nothing worse than that (/end rhyming section).

But seriously. If we’re talking about self-marketing I guess my fear for unthematic collections is when they become branded only by the cult of personality of the poet, and not by their own internal content or nature. They become, “the new John Doe book” and that’s that. But really, I shouldn’t be complaining about things this old and unchangeable. It’s not going to matter.

I’d like to draw our attention to this poem we’ve reprinted, “The Backwards Builders.” It’s a great example of the kind of protean reorganization that often drives your metaphors. Nature often steps in to disassemble the basis of your subject’s physical integrity. In this case, it’s a house, but it’s alternatively been the human body (“Something Inside that Grows like a Vine”), and a suburban street (“The Sidewalk Quicksand”). Sometimes this same physical reconstruction, and the accompanied reconsideration of physical laws, is used in the service of making new things, like species (“How Tiktaalik Came onto Land”) and toys (“Simple Magnetic Overunity Toy”). This malleability is something borrowed from surrealism (and, going back through time, surrealism’s precedents), but your usage of it tends to be very personal and often narrative. Even “The Backwards Builders” reads as a kind of surrealism-injected poem about a family.

I wonder what you’re trying to communicate by the various earthquakes and fissions in Tiny, Frantic, Stronger?

JL: I don’t want to label what other people are doing, but you could say what I’m doing in TFS is a poetry of doubt— its insights, pleasures, and dangers. The disassembling impulse you mention is just that: the attempt to move inward (or outward I suppose) and find some rung to grasp on to. What are the things that are fundamental, constitutive, in the world and in our own personal mythology? So, as you can see, this is a very first-book probing of identity.

It seems, though, that one of the ideas we’ve inherited from the 20th century’s focus on destroying meta-narratives (God, morality, truth, etc.) is that anything is possible: I mean, that one can do anything they want, or be anything they want, that everything is bendable and flexible and, truly, anything goes. There are entire industries (self-help, cosmetics, some branches of medical science) that are devoted to selling the idea that you can have it exactly the way you want it, whenever you want it. This is the engine of modern consumerism, and, I feel, some part of me was cast in this fire. I suppose that’s what makes this personal.

The book, then, is in many ways also a reaction to this idea, as I’ve self-defined it. I suppose what I see myself struggling against is a more general co-opting of language (in politics, marketing, news, etc.) for the purposes of making things easy. I want to make things difficult again. But I want there to be a rung.

JMM: I like that. It sounds like a very pragmatic attempt at accounting for the surrealist impulse as something that can be, if not exactly accounted for, at least given an analogy with something as trite and obscene consumerist economics.

I wonder, to conclude, what your thoughts are on the book as a consumer object in its own right. Poets who have just published their first collection have been known to hold a whole collection of different emotions and opinions regarding the publishing act. What’s the point of publishing a book of poetry, exactly? And, if this isn’t too unfair a question, what’s the point of buying one?

JL: Publishing poetry means bringing the solitary scribblings into the public square—giving them life, and, ideally, imbuing on them a sense of aesthetic accomplishment. Does this apply in all cases? Well, no. Some books are sadly lost in the maelstrom; other brilliant poems and manuscripts are still in a drawer somewhere, waiting.

I may not have answered the question. One of the things a poem does is that it takes this thing we use absolutely, every day (i.e. language), and actually breathes life back into it, as one might somebody who’s been drowning. That’s the impact a good poem can have, and, I suppose, that’s the larger impact a public poetry can be said to have in a world of bus ads, hit singles, and evening news exposes.

Buying poetry is a further nudging of the form into the consortium. Poems need readers to complete them, to place emphasis, interpret, scrutinize, and fill in the blurry edges. No two readers will do it the same, and this is not a defect in the product, but a wider, more inclusive sense of use. Poems are not Swiffers or Gatorade or Harlequin Romances because they are not emptied. So buying a poetry collection means participating in a wider sense of value.

The Backwards Builders
by Jeff Latosik

from Tiny, Frantic, Stronger

The backwards builders take apart
your house. They start at your porch,
unzip the wood, leave the deck chairs
shrugging their shoulders—

then they move closer, level the doors
that let the private hunker down
and hang its prints. The knob
in the next room, a hallway flutters,

you want to tell them stop,
but a door closes in your mouth.
They continue breaking hinge
from hinge, beam from beam,

the visible from what can’t be seen
by simply looking. Now they’ve pulled
out the basement that was in the brick
and now they’re breaking windows

in a nucleus. The pieces drop away
and divorce each other many times;
then the backwards builders yank
the drawstrings on electrons

so they go spinning up like blinds.
Something emerges: Clouds.
A scribble. The edge of a wing.
Teargas. Teargas. Turn signal.