Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Adam Dickinson

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March 29, 2013 - Adam Dickinson is Open Book: Toronto's April 2013 writer in residence.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Polymers.

Adam Dickinson:

The Polymers is an imaginary science project that combines the discourses, theories, and experimental methods of the science of plastic materials with the language and culture of plastic behaviour. The book attempts to synthesize or map the social expression of the most common plastic resins: Polyester (1), Polyethylene (2,4), Polyvinyl Chloride (3), Polypropylene (5), Polystyrene (6) and Other (7). You can see these numbers, incidentally, if you look in the little recycle symbols on the bottom of plastic bottles and other objects. In pataphysical fashion, unconventional research into such diverse subjects as line-ups, boredom, political movements, gossip, diets, archetypes, hoaxes, financial credit, classical conditioning, cutlery and partial forms of attention, has produced poems that function as particular atomic constituents of the molecular formulas for each specific resin. Through intentionally diverse poetic terrain, including lyrics, various procedures, constraints and formal mutations, the poems express the repeating structures fundamental to plastic molecules as they appear in cultural and linguistic activities such as arguments, anxieties and trends, to name but a few. 

OB:

Your last book of poetry, Kingdom, Phylum, was about taxonomies, and so it seems is The Polymers (though this time about chemical composition). Why is categorization important to you?

AD:

Categorization is very important to me because it represents one of the ways in which we organize our understanding of the world. We are always setting up various boundaries and systems in order to define who is in and who is out, what is human and what is nonhuman. What interests me most, of course, are the ways in which the objects/creatures/neighbours we classify resist or undermine our attempts to do so. I love the strange historical contingencies that have influenced the larger orders of things. Newton, for example, discovered only six colours in the rainbow, but had to separate violet from indigo in order to reach the religiously acceptable number of seven. Linnaeus, the father of taxonomical science, originally wanted to include humans in the same family as apes; the only difference he could see was in the canine teeth. Categorization is a necessary tool, but if it is approached as a totalizing activity it risks all kinds of discrimination and reductive thinking.

OB:

You write poetry about science. How do you feel about the "two cultures" divide — the idea that Western culture is split into the humanities and the sciences. Do you think this idea still holds?

AD:

C.P. Snow famously wrote about the “two cultures.” I think it is important for poetry to engage science because poetry must always engage with the prevailing discourses of truth and falsity in any cultural moment. In our present moment, I would argue that science holds a great deal of authority in determining what is true or false; we appeal to scientific logic repeatedly. It is poetry’s role to engage with and probe the limits of this kind of thinking. I don’t see poetry as being opposed to science; rather, I see poetry as an alternative form of inquiry in its own right, performing experiments at the limits of language and conceptual thinking. The imaginary solutions generated by poetry serve to shift the frames of our received understanding of things, broadening our worlds of signification so that what did not previously matter begins to do so in the future. I also think that poets need to respond to research in other fields of study in order to constantly renovate the procedures of contemporary poetry itself.

OB:

What kind of research did you do for The Polymers?

AD:

I read a lot of historical and technical work on plastics and polymer chemistry. I spoke to chemists. In fact, I worked with a chemist to make sure I got the visual poems correct that I ended up including in the book. Two poems in the book involve the invention of molecules. I consulted with these experts to make sure that the polymers I was creating (through textual procedures) were in fact plausible within their own structural parameters. I also did a lot of research into repetitive cultural phenomena, given the importance of repeating units to polymerization processes.

OB:

What poets are you reading lately?

AD:

I just got Jay MillAr’s new book Timely Irreverence and The Last Vispo Anthology, so I have been reading those. I also recently read Stephen Cain’s latest chapbook Zoom, which is a reverse-homophonic translation of sound poems by Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, Aleksei Kruchenykh, Paul Scheerbart and Claude Gauvreau. Really cool stuff!

OB:

What's your next project?

AD:

The Polymers is the first part of a series of projects that I am working on about chemicals and poetry — the research focus in these poems is more on the larger cultural effects of plastics. The next project I am working on, which I am currently calling Anatomic, will attempt to create a toxicological and symbiotic map of my own body. I’m doing blood tests to find out what sorts of chemicals are inside me and what sorts of microbes share my body. My aim is to complicate distinctions between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, and pollution and purity by reframing the body as a being overwritten by toxic chemicals yet constantly subject to the (bio)semiotic interference of other microbial life forms. I want to think about how poetry might respond to the ways in which our bodies are being affected by chemicals in the environment. I also want to think about what it means for the environment to rewrite a body in the first place. I’ve just started my blood work. The poems will emerge from research into the nature of the substances and microbes that I find.

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