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Websites for Gil's books:

www.talonbooks.com

www.gaspereau.com

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rob's website

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See rob's chapbook in this issue.

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rob's poetry in Spring 2001.




An Interview with Gil McElroy


by rob mclennan

Despite publishing chapbooks for over thirty years, 2001 saw the publication of Gil McElroy's first trade collection of poetry, Dream Pool Essays (Talonbooks), as well as Gravity & Grace: Selected Writing on Contemporary Canadian Art (Gaspereau Press). A prolific writer, artist & curator, McElroy lived for years around Ontario before moving briefly east, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he curated a show of visual poetry by the late Canadian poet bpNichol. He has since returned to Ontario, and is currently living in Colborne, Ontario, where he is putting the finishing touches on a potential second trade collection, Nonzero Definitions.

This interview was conducted over email from June to September, 2002.


The Moon’s Astronomers

The world The sun sets
is hard flint when sunlight
to build on, is scarcest,
new and un- so as to produce
alloyed. no vacuum.
In a sub- When you are two-
system of apples, dimensional,
there are no you do not ask
guarantees. where

First of all It is a paper-doll
one must fit. heaven of sorts.

2

The sun sets The world
when sunlight is hard flint
is scarcest, to build on,
so as to produce new and un-
no vacuum. alloyed.
When you are two- In a sub-
dimensional, system of apples,
you do not ask there are no
where. guarantees.

It is a paper-doll First of all
heaven of sorts. one must fit.

rob mclennan: I suppose one of the most obvious questions, after nearly three decades of publishing, why did it take so long to publish your first book?

Gil McElroy: As for why it took so long to get my first book out: because I didn’t meet you sooner. My first chapbook was published by Nebula Press in 1979, and I’ve been sending out book length manuscripts since about ‘81. The first chunk of poems in Dream Pool Essays (the section entitled Sublunary) I published as a chapbook called “Deep Ecology” back in ‘88 (I’ll have to send a reprint of it - did all the artwork for it myself as well). I had Dream Pool Essays (occasionally under another title) turned down by everyone, some presses multiple times (like Penumbra, for example, both when it was in northern Ontario and when John Flood moved to Ottawa). I needed help, and you were the first person to offer that (for which I am still grateful beyond words). I’d previously shown manuscripts to a number of writers I’d gotten to know but none were interested in passing it along. I’d all but given up trying to find a publisher (though hadn’t given up on writing).

rob mcclennan: I’m rather surprized at that, considering you’ve been constantly publishing, whether self-publishing ephemeral bits, or in magazines like Raddle Moon and the like. Why do you think that was? And how do you feel now that it’s finally happened? I mean, have you had to re-evaluate your writing considerations?

Gil McElroy: I’ve honestly no idea why, though as you know it can be difficult to get beyond the “no unsolicited manuscripts” wall some publishers put up. I’d had some success over the years with periodical publications, but presses were obviously another thing entirely. And I went at it fairly intelligently; I didn’t send a ms. off to a publisher who would be uninterested in the kinds of things I did. And as for the self-publishing: it was actually bpNichol who confirmed for the the validity and need to publish. He and Ellie were kind enough to include me on their Christmas mailing list, and I began emulating that practice when I could afford to as well.

But as for the long wait for a publisher to take me on: it was emotionally trying, and I had many a dark night of the soul. I mean, when things happen like a contemporary and close friend of the period — someone I’d sat through many a night talking poetry with, smoking cigarettes rolled from pages torn from an old bible— finds a publisher with his first try (21 years before Talon took on my first book), it got somewhat depressing at times. I gotta admit that the Talon publication of Dream Pool Essays did a tremendous amount to help rebuild a rather battered and scarred self-image.

My biggest influence through everything has been William Blake. Damn the torpedoes; full steam ahead. Beyond what I think of his work itself (and I do think a great deal of it), I admire the hell out of his belief in the value and importance of his own work despite its rejection in his time. The Blake exhibition in the 80s at the Art Gallery of Ontario was a revelation to me, and had tremendous impact on my own thought.

I don’t think over the years that I’ve re-evaluated my writing priorities very much, although I don’t indulge in experimentation for its own sake as much as I did twenty years ago.

rm: Experimentation of what kind? And on that note, you seem partial to the serial poem (as Spicer called it), from the “Echolocation” series, to the 14 part “Carbon”, and ongoing “Julian Days” poems. Where did this start, and what about the serial attracts you?

GM: My serious interest in poetry traces back to Dante and Pound, the two biggest influences on me in the early days (early/mid seventies), though my earliest written stuff tended toward an extreme form of minimalism -terseness to the point of silence, I suppose. The extended/long/serial poem has always been at issue, right from the start. My first chapbook - A New Mythology (Nebula Press, 1979) - was a long poem, and for the most part I tend to think in terms of poem sequences rather than isolated poem units unrelated to some larger picture. The first real poet I knew - Ken Stange - always talked about working in terms of books rather than any smaller unit, so I would imagine that also had some impact on how I approached my work. And I’ve been heavily influenced by the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and a few other composers generically labeled “minimalist” whom I discovered in the mid/late seventies. So extended pieces like Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” and Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” had tremendous influence on what I was doing.

As for experimentation: a lot of my earlier stuff is experimental to the exclusion of pretty much all else. I did a series of what I called “Word Groups”, chant-like poems for multiple voices specifically intended for performance (and which were heavily influenced the elements of repetition in music by Reich and Glass). I also was deeply interested in visuality, and did pieces like “Word Maps,” in which I remapped the letters of words according to a somewhat arbitrary mapping device which controlled the visual placement of letters on the page. It was published in Grain magazine in the early 80s when the combined forces with the AKA Gallery in Saskatoon to do an exhibition/publication of visual poetry. (That was also the first time I’d shown my work).

I’m less concerned now in experimentation for its own sake, though it is still a significant element in my work, both written and visual.

rm: The title of your first full collection, Dream Pool Essays, came from an ancient astronomical text, a reference your recent STANZAS issue also had, titled “Meteor Showers.” What is it about cosmology that impacts so heavily on your work?

GM: I’ve been fascinated by the night sky, by the stars, and by astronomy as a whole since I was a kid with a cheap cardboard telescope. During the 1980's I spent a lot of nights outside with friends doing some serious (by comparison) observing with better telescopes (alas, none of which belonged to me). And I became a pretty good naked eye amateur astronomer until moving to Halifax, where the brightness of the night sky courtesy the lighting at the container port near where I lived washed away all but the brightest stars. A lot of those experiences fed directly into the making of the poem sequences, especially “Meteor Showers,” and “The Julian Days” which employs a calendar used by (amongst others) astronomers to date celestial events like the brightening and fading of variable stars.

But cosmology is something larger. Every culture, every society has developed it’s own cosmology in an attempt to explain the universe around us and our place within it. Cosmological themes and influences show up in virtually all the visual art I’ve done; the bulk of my mixed-media drawings on paper employ the use of images of galaxies and nebulae juxtaposed with textual elements drawn from a shorthand notational system used in the 19th and 20th centuries to describe the visual appearance of such celestial phenomena; aspects of Anasazi cosmology permeated “Calendar Room,” a gallery installation I mounted in several different incarnations (depending on the time of year) at a number of galleries; the spindle-shaped cosmology of the Kogi people of South America gave form to an installation I mounted in Halifax called, like my book, Dream Pool Essays.

My passion for cosmology can’t be nailed down as directly in terms of my poetry and poetics. It’s a more elusive and allusive kind of thing - though cosmological and astronomical references constantly pop up in texts - that has much to do with the simple facts of my interest in the subject and that most of my reading occurs within that area.

rm: The way your writing seems to fit together, your combination of “minimalism” and “larger picture” (as you call them), do you see your books fitting together into a single work, as Robert Kroetsch’s Collected Field Notes did, or bpNichol’s The Martyrology? Or are they more loose-fitting?

GM: I suppose I’ve never had the opportunity to see my books as fitting together in a larger picture. It took so very long for my first book to come out, and there were many variations on its contents as I pulled it apart and reassembled it while seeking a publisher for many a year.

I do, however, see some continuity - a thread, if you will - running through what I hope will be the books to come. It has, of course, to do mainly with my interests in the serial poem, and “The Julian Days” sequences that form a section of Dream Pool Essays and the newly completed manuscript with the working title of Nonzero Definitions. With no beginning or end to the larger whole that is the sequence, I think it forms the central core of the books around which the other sections much orbit and interact.

So to answer your question, perhaps the books are (or will be) both tight and loose-fitting as a larger whole. Like quarks, sub-atomic particles normally held together loosely, but mighty tightly bound together should one try to pry one loose from the others. I’m hoping that would be the case.

rm: You mentioned the late bpNichol earlier. In June of 2000, I got to see the brilliant St. Art: The Visual Poetry of bpNichol show you curated at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum in Charlottetown, P.E.I. How did that show come about?

GM: St. Art had been something I’d wanted to do for many years, back to when I first started curating exhibitions for various galleries. I’d met bp only once, in the early 1980's when I had him up to North Bay (where I was living at the time) to do a reading. Ellie was pregnant with Sarah at the time, and he didn’t want to stay overnight and drove back right after the reading. But before he read, we had a chance to talk, mainly about Gertrude Stein.

Which has nothing to do with St. Art, actually. I’d been doing some visual poetry, and even publishing and exhibiting it, since the early ‘80s, and while it wasn’t my primary literary/artistic endeavour, it was (and still is) a major ongoing interest. St. Art dates back as an idea to the early 1990's, but went nowhere because, let's face it, the visual arts and most visual artists don’t take visual poetry seriously. When I was offered the job as Curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery & Museum in Charlottetown back in ‘97, I saw my chance. The gallery director, Terry Graff, had a sense of vision and gave me enormous leeway to do the things I did, and I was able to convince him that this was a good idea for a show, and he was able to secure funding. We borrowed work from the bpNichol collection at Simon Fraser University, from Eleanor Nichol, and from my personal collection.

The final pieces of the exhibition all came together when the gallery was plunged into crisis when Terry was fired as Director several months before St. Art was scheduled to open and national attention was focused on what was going on at the Confed Centre.

In any event, the show opened in May of 1997 when the Canadian Museums Association held their annual meeting in Charlottetown. We were fortunate enough to have Ellie and Sarah Nichol in attendance, and Justin Stephenson filmed sequences of the show for his upcoming film on bp. We’d rushed the production of the exhibition catalogue - which featured essays by Paul Dutton, Barbara Caruso and me - so it would be out in time for the opening, and it shows: it’s chock full of typos. St. Art has since gone on to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, and opens at the Owens Art Gallery at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick in October of this year.

I’m using the essay I wrote for the exhibition catalogue as a jumping off point for either an extended essay or a book about the relationship between visual poetry and visual art.

rm: That would be interesting, since I even know writers who collect visual art, yet dismiss visual poetry. Why do you think there aren’t more crossovers between the two?

GM: I think it may have something to do with the professionalism of both the literary and visual arts. I became involved with artist-run centres back in the late 1970's organizing readings and such for the White Water Gallery in North Bay. At the time, there was an openness that was an integral part of artist-run centre network. It was felt that artists could be their own curators - that a professional intermediary between the gallery and the artist was unnecessary and in fact detrimental. Artists could self-curate, and in fact the definition of “artist” was itself loose and open. Anyone who called themselves an artist was recognized as such.

That state of affairs couldn’t last, of course, and the artist-run centre network has become highly professionalized and the role of the curator became integral. The definition of artist has consequently changed considerably, and now involves a high degree of professionalism. I don’t think that’s a good thing for art (or for the literary realm either), and has resulted in an ossification that prohibits a lot of interdisciplinary activity. Visual poetry has consequently been marginalized. I know very few visual artists who take visual poetry seriously. It’s typically looked upon as trivial.

In some ways, I think that visual artists have a point, for there’s a lot of bad visual poetry floating around, and unfortunately, it’s the bad stuff that has come to be used as evidence against its relevance. In the visual arts, it was Fluxus artists in the 50's and 60's who last took visual poetry seriously at all, in large part because a truly interdisciplinary spirit was at the heart of the movement. It was Emmett Williams (a Fluxus member) who produced the landmark An Anthology of Visual Poetry that Something Else Press published, and it was Dick Higgins (a Fluxus member) who was the man behind Something Else Press, and who put together that remarkable anthology of historical Pattern Poetry.

Currently, the UbuWeb visual and sound poetry website makes the best case for a serious consideration of visual poetry in a truly interdisciplinary way, but I think it’s a real uphill battle.

rm: Who would you say, then, in terms of current concrete and visual poets, you find the most engaging? And is this still a form you actively work on?

GM: All my visual work - gallery installations or works on paper - is in some way an extension of my interest in and commitment to the possibilities of visual poetry. Text, as you would expect, is foregrounded and messed about with in what I think are interesting ways. So while I’m no longer bound to the confines of the 8 ˝ x 11 inch sheet of bond paper, everything I do can be traced back to what I first accomplished within that framework.

As for interesting stuff being done in the field of visual poetry right now, I have to say first off that my curatorial and critical interest has been focused on historical stuff, so I’m less up on what’s going on in a very contemporary way. That all being said, I think Darren Wershler-Henry’s work is of great consequence, as is derek beaulieu’s, in a post-bpNichol vein. (And beaulieu’s contribution extends well beyond his own visual poetry into his vitally important publishing endeavour.)

But I am, of course, really interested in “the opening of the field,” to borrow from Robert Duncan, and think that much of the work of visual artists should be brought into the fold and taken seriously as visual poetry. (That, of course, cuts two ways, for writers working visually should also be accorded critical relevance by the mainstream of the visual arts.)

***

rob mclennanrob mclennan is an Ottawa-based poet, editor & publisher, & a few other things besides. the author of over 45 poetry chapbooks, his 7th trade collection of poetry is paper hotel (Broken Jaw Press). the winner of the 1999 Canadian Authors Association / Air Canada Award for most promising writer (in any genre) in Canada under the age of 30, he has published work in seven countries, & read in three. the editor/publisher of above/ground press & STANZAS magazine (both 10 years old in 2003), he has edited a number of anthologies, including YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (with Andy Brown), side/lines: a new canadian poetics & GROUNDSWELL: the best of above/ground press, 1993-2003. he is currently working on a novel, a collection of essays, a collection of interviews, & a multi-volume long poem titled "the other side of the mouth," among other things. he has a website, and his chapbook appears in this issue.