1. In the past you have worked with concrete poetry and specifically writing that blends into conceptual art, can you describe the process starting from ideation to the actual moment in time when you feel the work is complete?
I try to keep my eyes open to language in a social environment – not just reading contemporary and historical work, but also street signs and billboards, advertisements, logos and designs, watching for the surprising moments of how language gathers and spreads across expectation. Rarely do I come to a project with an idea in mind in advance – reading leads to questions (“what if I…? what would it look like if I …?”) and if answering those questions excites and surprises me, that’s where I want to write from.
2. What are your primary concerns when you are doing concrete poetry?
Concrete poetry is poetry that most responds to our contemporary environment – seeing writing and reading across platform and media – and when I write, I endeavour to create work which doesn’t comfortably sit within “poetry” – if I don’t know if its poetry, then THAT’S what I want to write. Let language gather and arrange in ways that build visually, rhythmically, dynamically; I address the shape and then the meaning take care of itself.
3. Why did you write Seen of the crime: Essays on conceptual writing?
Seen of the crime: Essays on conceptual writing is a gathering of essays and thinking on contemporary practice, of the ways of seeing poetry which are outside of the traditional. There continues to be several communities of authors who question the boundaries of form and content – where the forms and scale of composition ranges from the miniscule punctuation mark through to the monstrous database. Seen of the Crime builds on the questions that I ask of my students and colleagues, the “what ifs” of writing.
4. Could you talk about the process of conceiving and then completing Local Colour?
Local Colour is a direct response to Paul Auster’s novel Ghosts (one of his New York Trilogy). Auster’s novel takes the form of a hard-boiled detective story about literary authorship and identity … all the characters are named after different colours: Blue, Black, Brown, White, etc. As I was reading those signifiers started to assert themselves on the page, what would it look like if just those words were isolated? And then, instead of leaving the words on the page, what about replacing the words with blocks of colour – a novel without words, leaving only the blocks of coloured Lego, coloured squares like pixels on the screen.
5. In editing Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (2005) did you find any pan-Canadian obsessions?
Shift & Switch is a collection which reflects a moment in Canadian publishing, no anthology remains contemporary forever and often reflects the idiosyncratic views of its editors. While far, far from exhaustive, Shift & Switch gathers over 40 new writers all of whom were looking to expand the formal constraints of “poetry”, what can poetry become when unfettered from traditional expectations of form and content.
6. What writers (or artists in other forms/media) have been formative in shaping how you write? How?
The Canadian author who has been the greatest influence on my practice, by far, is the late bpNichol (1944-1988). While I never met Nichol, his writing and publishing foregrounded collaboration, the mentoring of peers and emerging writers, and slowly growing a heterogeneous body of work which remained in “apprenticeship to language.” His exploration of the boundaries of his own understanding of writing, readerships, and audiences, and being in dialogue with writing and reading from a position of learning and apprenticeship continues to inspire. It was an honour to edit his Nights on Prose Mountain: the fiction of bpNichol.
7. How do other people contribute to your writing practice?
To me writing is always a collaborative process, it’s a space where conversations take place. My latest book, Lens Flare, grew out of my previous title Aperture, and conversations with visual artist Rhys Farrell. I see writing as in constant conversation with itself, with other books, and with how other creators see writing. The best books, to me, inspire more writing – as Canadian poet Margaret Avison said, the best response to a poem is another poem. Writing should inspire, it’s a call and response.
8. How is your writing practice informed by a sense of writing to or for others? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
I try to write books that I want to read, but also that would inspire responses. For years, I have been dedicated to posting all of my work online as free downloadable PDFs, to allow for readers unfettered access to my writing – and to see how books could inspire responses that are outside of my prediction. It’s kinda like a student going off to university and leaving the nest: they live in residence, they get a piercing, they dye their hair, they learn and grow and change — and they become different people. They return home changed, with new ways of seeing the world. I’m excited to see what my writing learns when it travels and returns home.
9. Have you ever collaborated on a writing project with another writer? Or maybe you’ve collaborated with an artist/dancer/musician/actor? Can you share your experience?
My writing practice for over 20 years has repeatedly focused on collaboration and learning from how other artists – across genre and form – teach me about my own writing, about conversation and what might happen next. I became an artist in order to have interesting and exciting conversations, to learn, and to have fun. I’ve seen this in action — the day after I started to release my writing as downloadable PDFs, a fibre artist in eastern Canada wrote to ask if she could embroider my poems on the side of her high-top sneakers … something I would have never thought of. I write to surprise myself and others, seems like a good way of defining poetry: writing to surprise.
Derek Beaulieu is the author/editor of over twenty collections of poetry, prose, and criticism. His most recent volume of fiction, a, A Novel, was published by France’s Jean Boîte Editions, his most recent volume of poetry, Surface Tension, is forthcoming from Coach House Books. Beaulieu has exhibited his visual work across Canada, the United States, and Europe and has won multiple local and national awards for his teaching and dedication to students. Derek Beaulieu holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Roehampton University and is the Director of Literary Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.