Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Paul Dutton

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Paul Dutton (Photo Credit: Rob Allen)

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June and July. In this interview, poet Paul Dutton speaks with students Spencer Leefe and Emily Booth.

Hello Mr. Dutton,

Our names are Spencer and Emily. We are thrilled to have the pleasure of interviewing you and for that, we thank you. We found your work very interesting, original and intriguing to the mind. We hope you enjoy responding to the questions and it didn’t take too much time out of your busy life. So, please enjoy: Spencer and Emily’s questions!

Spencer asks: Hello, Mr. Dutton, my name is Spencer Leefe and I was interested in interviewing because you seem to be very unique in your poetry. When I looked you up online I was intrigued and interested in who you were. First of all, What was your inspiration to start performing vocal poetry?

My inspiration came from hearing the sound poetry of bpNichol, which struck me with its emotional power and its capacity for entertainment, excitement, and a means of engaging with a spiritual reality beyond words.

How did you come to be a poet in general and what information can you give me related to why you chose to be a writer?

I always had a love of words and language, and experienced the most intense pleasure and excitement from my earliest encounters with reading. It seems to me that there was hardly ever a time when I did not want to be a writer, but when I think hard about it I realize that the desire really began when I was about nine or ten, reading Charles Dickens. Well, my literary sights weren’t always set so high, and my first writing attempt was taking a crack at a Hardy Boys adventure (Hardy Boys books recounted the adventures of two young teen brothers who were boy detectives). But I was no good at plots. Then in my late high-school years I became fascinated by poetry and started trying my hand at that. In university, where I’d gone to study to be a journalist, I discovered that I wasn’t cut out to be a reporter, that I was an artist, and the art I wanted to pursue was writing—all kinds of artistic writing: poetry, fiction, and essays. I must say that I don’t believe that there’s any choice about being an artist. You are or you aren’t. So I feel like I didn’t so much choose writing as writing chose me. That said, while I had a talent for writing, I also had singing and drawing talents, but in my early twenties made a conscious decision to focus my energy on writing, and specifically on poetry. I didn’t know then that poetry would come to provide scope for my musical and visual-arts talents as well.

Spencer asks: Vocal improvisation is very prevalent in your work. How do you start the writing process in your vocal poetry?

Well, here’s a little lesson in terminology. Vocal poetry can mean any poetry that’s read or spoken out loud. A more specific term for what you’re asking about is sound poetry, and that I like to define as a poetic approach to sound, rather than a sonic approach to poetry. In this type of poetry—at least the way I ever practised it, there was less writing than there was sounding. To the degree that my sound poems involved writing as such, it was usually sketchy bits of syllables, sometimes with descriptive phrases to remind me of the kinds of nonverbal sounds I used. I am here using the past tense, because I long since stopped creating repeatable sound poems, and any new sound poetry I create is totally improvised. I still perform structured, composed sound poems, both verbal and nonverbal, but that’s all repertoire from years ago. Even at that, in most of those predetermined sound poems, improvisation plays a significant role. Anyway, when I did compose sound poems, the process began sometimes with words, sometimes with sounds, and both of those sometimes inside my head and sometimes out through my mouth.

Your vocal poetry seems to be very complicated as it is many different sounds. How do you know what you want, where you want in each poem?

I don’t. It’s a search. In all my poetry, whether written for normal speaking voice or composed of sound for performance or created as a visual construct, I am probing and exploring. I start with a word or a sound or a line, and I follow where the poem leads me. It’s something I learned from my late friend, poet bpNichol, back when we were both young guys in our twenties, and he inspired me to stop using language as a tool for telling everybody about myself and my own precious thoughts and ideas and to start surrendering to the language in order to see what I could find out from it, to see what news I could learn about myself and the world around me.

I practise three kinds of poetry. One of these is what I like to call syntactical poetry. If you would like to find out about my syntactical poetry, you can go here, where you’ll find the full text of my book Aurealities. Or you could go here, where there’s a video of a public reading that includes lots of my poems in that vein. Another complete reading is in a video on the Web here. And then there’s a third one. Two other books, Right Hemisphere, Left Ear and Visionary Portraits (both out of print, unfortunately) can be tracked down in some public libraries. In Toronto, they’re only available at the Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor. Well worth the trip, I think. But Aurealities, in addition to being readily available on line, can be borrowed through any branch in the city, so you can have the pleasant experience of holding a book in your hands and resting your eyes in the reflected light off the printed page, instead of straining them in the projected light off an electronic display of one kind or another. And poems from all three of those books, plus some others from other books, and some that have never before been in any book, will be available in the fall of 2014 in a new book called Sonosyntactics: New and Selected Poetry of Paul Dutton, from Laurier University Press. I expect that Sonosyntactics will be readily available in libraries.

Another kind of poetry I practise is sound poetry, which seems to be the poetry of mine that you both most know about, which really gives a very unbalanced idea of what my poetry is all about. I am often referred to as a sound poet, and I really object to that label, because a basic premise of my entire literary career has been that sound poetry is only one of the many kinds of poetry available to a working poet. People don’t use the terms sonnet poet or haiku poet or narrative poet or anecdote poet, so why sound poet?

The third kind of poetry I practise is visual poetry, what I like to call drawing with the alphabet. A full sequence of eighteen such poems, a chapbook called The Plastic Typewriter, is on the Web here. There are others of my visual poems in Right Hemisphere, Left Ear; and the forthcoming Sonosyntactics will include a representational few.

Spencer asks: I really enjoyed your vocal poem “Jazzstory”

Well, thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think it’s important to point out that it’s only a “vocal poem” when I read it out loud. It’s a poem, plain and simple, meant to be read on the page (which is how it first appeared in public) as much as performed out loud.

mainly because it consists of words and it was almost a rap. I think I enjoy it more than your other poems because you incorporate words and sounds.

Hmmm. I wonder what those other poems are. I’ve got lots of poems that incorporate words and sounds. And of course, all words can be sounds, and are exactly that, once they’re said out loud. The sonic quality of words is something that poets have gloried in down through the centuries. Some medieval troubadours in southern Europe composed parts of their poems in pure, nonverbal phonemes, and poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas (just two of many, many examples) made special use of the sound qualities of words.

When you start talking you say (forgive me if I’m not spelling this right) “bump in grind, up and out, pout, pass pump garder, and eager leap, a tumble, a gulp, an ultimate mustard”

Here’s the full poem. It’s not yet widely available in print form, but will be included in my next book of new poems, to be published at some yet-unknown future point under a title I haven’t yet discovered. It will also be included in Sonosyntactics. So, you’re getting an advance preview here.

what is the deeper meaning of these words strung together?

Well, I’m not sure if there is a deeper meaning to them. And anyway, my writing is meant to stimulate readers’ creative interaction with the poem, so if I had a deeper meaning in mind, I’d not announce it. The whole point is to take the words and their order and draw your own conclusions about meaning, if any. And what I feel or think about the poem’s meaning is not necessarily the only one(s) it might have. That’s what makes a poem a kind of living thing, keeps you coming back to it to ponder and plumb its depths—or shallows, as the case may be. And I don’t want to limit its life by reducing it to one thing, although admittedly, some poems really do have only one meaning. But mostly, my writing is involved with the shadowy, ambiguous areas of the mind and of experience, trying to unearth things from the unconscious, evoking mysteries that have no ultimate resolution, and raising questions rather than dealing out answers.

When writing this poem what was your mindset and thinking process?

Tim Posgate had asked me to write a poem relating to his jazz combo Jazzstory. I based the first line on the names of the instruments in the band, then changed the order, as a musician might change the order of chords in a tune (it was a high-school student, years ago, a guitarist, who first pointed out that kind of analogy to me, talking about another poem of mine where I used a similar technique). So, I had my theme, as it were, what jazz musicians call “a head.” The letters are like musical notes, the words like musical chords. I built the rest of the poem with the “notes” of the first line (if you check, you’ll see that no other letters are used in the poem), making new “chords” and changing around those “notes” and “chords” inventively and improvisationally, the way a jazz musician would with musical material (in jazz, it’s called “playing the changes”). I wasn’t that worried about meaning, though there’s plenty of that there. But I was being guided mainly by my ear. Some of the images that came out are like surrealism. That’s a particular kind of artistic approach. You might want to look it up.

Spencer asks: I noticed that you seem to be very consistent in your vocal improvisation, many aboriginal tribes throat sing, have you ever felt they have an influence on you?

The only throat-singing influence in my sound improv (I usually call it either soundsinging or oral sound art), is Tuvan overtone singing. Something else for you to look up, if you’re so inclined. I only use touches of it, not the full-blown art.

What are some reasons why you perform vocal improvisation and why do you seem to gravitate towards the vocal poetry instead of written work?

Well, it’s not “instead of” but “as well as”; and for the “why,” see my answer to your very first question. I’ll add to that now that vocal improvisation allows me to exercise some of those musical talents I mentioned earlier—ones that aren’t available to me in written-language poetry.

In all your years of writing, what influences would you say were the most strong for you?

My strongest musical influences have been jazz, blues, and indigenous Scottish and British folksong. My strongest literary influences have been Hopkins, Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein and bpNichol, plus a whole bunch of fiction writers, like Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Emily asks: I really enjoyed your vocal poem “Jazzstory”. This poem stood out to me more than others because I really enjoyed your combination of words and sounds and the poem really spoke to me. When I was listening to this poem it made me wonder, what was going through your mind when you were writing this?

I’m glad you got so much out of the poem, and thanks for saying how greatly it touched you. As for your question, I can only add this little bit to what I already wrote in response to Spencer’s question about the poem: I wanted to use words to evoke jazz rhythms and some sense of the instruments’ sounds, I think I got the bass and drums pretty clearly, and a bit of the trumpet and guitar perhaps more subtly.

Do you find that by using sounds in your poetry it is more appealing to your audience?

Certainly to some of my audience. Others hate it. But I guess those aren’t my audience—especially when they walk out or otherwise remove their energy from my performance.

Emily asks: When I was looking up your poetry online I noticed that you have done a lot of performances in North America and Europe. Would you ever consider travelling to new places that you have yet to be to perform for a newer audience or even doing some concerts?

I’m scheduled in the fall of 2014 to travel for the first time to Scandinavia to perform. And I am always doing both literary readings and music concerts. My concerts are both solo and in collaboration, sometimes with other oral sound artists, sometimes with instrumentalists. I’m in a band called CCMC with a sax player, a pianist, and a drummer, the latter two also playing synthesizers.

Paul Dutton is a poet, novelist, essayist, musician and oral sound artist. During his forty-year career he has performed, solo and ensemble, throughout Europe and the Americas at literary and music festivals, in concert halls, galleries, theatres, clubs, universities, and high schools, on radio, TV, and film. He was a member of the poetry performance group The Four Horsemen, and is in the free-improvisation quartet CCMC and the Canada-France poetry-music group Quintet à Bras. His seventh and most recent book is the novel Several Women Dancing; his sixth and most recent solo recording is the CD Oralizations.

Born and raised in Toronto. Representing a butterfly with her beauty and sweetness. Living the life of the typical teenage girl: procrastination on major assignments (…I procrastinated on this), sleeping too much, getting regular manicures and blowing all of her money at the mall. Her major hobbies are going to the gym and music. She plans on attending Humber college next year and to continue living at home with her noble mother and sister. This majestical creature is known as the Emily Booth.

Spencer: A man of proper wit and adventurous spirit suited to the mountains of life. He came into this world juuuuuust like everyone else, looking for freedom, inspiration, and of course success. He has a dream to one day to see himself on the big screen. Some people call him the space cowboy, some people call him the gangster of life, and soooooome people call him MAURIIICE. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page