Franco Cortese

1. Bill Bissett describes your latest work Lip as “a minimalist multilingual adventur entr a vowell n its numbrless touches xploor n xplode in its uses n sylabik song beings n lip” How did you conceive of the title? What questions are you asking in this work?

I didn’t set out to ask any questions in, or through, the work – the questions asked by the book are the book’s to ask, not mine, if you know what I mean – but I did set out to ask just one question to the work, at the outset, to which the book itself is the only possible viable answer. What might human language say to itself when particulated, broken, severed and deported from the common parts and usual suspects of its body to the point of falling dissolute-atomic within the borders of any individual where or when’s singular grammar? When the flags and stones of different tongues are forced to meld, mut(il)ate, interbreed and communitate? What might be said when degrees of semiotic omission become so stark as to necessitate linguic collision and the Frankenstein botchwork of dense multilingualism? What might be sung, sed or left undead using a palette of just vowels, or just consonants? What must be done to write a semantically-meaningful poem using just the letter a, or e, or i, or o, or u, as single glyphs? What could a semantically meaningful poem that uses just one letter say? Can it be done? That was the alien dark I sought to venture into. A thing seemingly failborn, bones like matchsticks, and all-but-certainly deranged. Plato’s grave. The result is a work of words that in many respects spoke itself. I did set up frameworks – trenches in dirt, cutways for rivers – and do the choosing at points of forking paths (and almost every path forked, I must admit), but beyond that, besides setting the thing spinning, I’m not much more than the hapless host that had the gall to write the thunder down (though close colleagues and friends disagree, and find traces of me all over the damn thing, amid other telling smears and guilty marks of craft, merit and authorial intent). Authors unto ghosts anyways, no matter the character of a given work, so it doesn’t really matter how much I’m making up.

2. Lip seems like a highly collaborative project as it includes “cover title text by Sacha Archer, a table of contents by Gary Barwin, a visuopoetic contribution to the backmatter by derek beaulieu, and 20 original illustrations by bill bissett”. Can you talk a bit more about how the collaboration happened and how each unique component melded into the whole?

The book was done dawn dusted and burgundy dead, already on its way to birthpanging in physical meat, as book-in-world, by the time it began again, in the sense you’re speaking. Lip became and finished, at first, as manuscript: text on ghosty wood, glyphy bones on bare space. This was how it was accepted by the publisher. A thing itself, free from any outside hand besides the few generous heads I schlepped it around to for feedback. So in that sense the work itself isn’t so collaborative (outside of the sense that all work is necessarily collaborative in its deepest, in the cracks), until it became or becomes so. I suppose you can read as much collaboration into it as you like; at the end of days everything is warranted by the reader alone. Sacha’s title page and cover title text came first, because these things must be had; I asked for something blood calligraphic, something mud, something placentic – and he provided a dozen options. Two were chosen, the rest remain secret, somnambulant. The cover-in-skin was shot by him in his poet’s-madhouse basement workshop anyways, which was obligation enough to give him canvas. Derek’s visual piece was destined for the book; he made it for the cover of my 2018 No Press chapbook aeiou, and at some point while bogged and swimming in the thick of Lip I had it tattooed on my back, and included it in Lip as a testament to the kind of limb that the project had become to me, as semblance of the indeterminable graft-like something the project took from me by the time it had left (not that it left me less, by any means), as well as to all the skin riverunning in the spaces of the book itself. Gary’s table of cont(in)ents was also made at my request, and beautifully done. With at least 96 poems containing (or 100, or 192, or 211, or 231, depending on how you chop it), there was no other way. bill’s beautiful drawings – the latest and last final leavings to touch lome, are another thing.

3. What role do the illustrations play in Lip? Do they complement or complete the poems in any way or do they add what is unspoken or unspeakable? Or merely operate as standalone (sort of like concrete) poems on their merit?

bill’s illustrations are both, signifying a tension of various binaries at play in the work (it’s all a rather tense coil). They stand aside and astride, and both compete and uncomplete the work. But that’s the end, and the wrong place to start (Lip’s helic mirrorsphere chassis bedamned). I first met bill, in the kind of way where meeting is a two-person thing, at billfest 2019 – the Niagara node of his surprise 80th birthday celebration extravaganza organized by the ever-generous spacemaker Gregory Betts, where a bunch of us poets came together to perform either works of his or works that were meant to speak to him. I read him an anagrammatic beau-presence that reconfigured the letters of a short-lived alter ego of his, bill bissonnette – which was one of the things Jack Kerouac called him in a 70’sinterview for The Paris Review in which he called bill one of the greats. After that, I published a chapbook of text-to-text and text-to-image machine translations through nOIR:Z, a small press that bill co-proprietates with Hart Broudy and Brian Dedora, and bill had nice things to say about that work. So manuscriptal Lip was already in its final birthpangs, accepted by the publisher, scheduled for release, with typesetting and kerning underway, and I reached out to bill for a blurb. He provided one – a winding, swaying, verse-visceratingly beautiful blurb that cut to one of the various hearts of the book like thunder, and then I asked him, whimlike, if he wanted to make a visual table of contents for the book. That didn’t happen, and the book’s visual table of contents ended up being made (beautifully) by Gary Barwin, but what did happen is this: in response to my request to bill for a single drawing, he mailed me a sextuplet drawings and a stunning, de-spining 2 page handwritten letter on nice big thick art paper, thanking me for thinking of him. I fell in love with those drawings, which spoke to the thematic heft of the book in ways I didn’t expect possible, bellied with skysong and primal meat and maggoty cortices, of rivers and knives and broken maps. I told him as much, and that I wanted to pair them with the 19 sections of the book, and slung him a few other very general visual themes, and he came back with another dozen drawings that spoke to the work and those gestaltic cues in really surprising ways, and all but a few of them made their way into the book. From there a very valued friendship was born. But that’s bill for you. Yes, he’s a living legend, going strong on a near 7-decade body of work, and an absolute fucking fundament – a true founder of the body of poetics I live inside today – and larger than life, but as it turns out, an extremely large heart as well. Open, feeling, urgently reciprocative, fully generous. Hard not to love him, as many know. Above all else the way that the drawings and the text speak to one another was, and still is, fully uncanny to me. None of them are arbitrarily placed, each speaking directly to the sections they are attached and appended to, and at the end of the day very few of them could have wound up anywhere other than where they ended up. I still recall having prints of the drawings and pre-galley sheafs of the book (all 260-odd leavings of it) sprawled disheveled and eviscerated on my living room floor, me beating and contemplating the broken body of it all in the weird deep of night, when suddenly all clicked, boneset, and then it couldn’t have been other. That’s all I’ll say. I do have my own private analysis of why and where, (but why my fuckan theory in the first place?), and that exists somewhere in a copy I sent bill, with the rectos of all bill’s versos squished with my flailing intestinal hand-chucked poesisis on that where and why, riffing, riffling – 20 long private poems with a shelf life of exactly two retinas, as a paltry thanks for the seeming skyful he gave me – but that lives and dies with bill, I think.

4.  What made you a writer?

Some kind of hopelessness.

5.  Do you remember any experience around learning to write that became formative for you in the later years?

Not really. Learning to read, however, maybe. So much of my writing – compositionally, procedurally and in-it-phenomenologically speaking – feels like, seems like, maybe is reading. I remember being told a story about my 1st grade teacher remarking how I “just didn’t quite get reading”, couldn’t grip the concept of it. I suppose that that may have given me a kind of sustaining brash. All writing is defiant. Right?

6. What are you writing against or towards? Form. To and fro, from and for.

Franco Cortese is an experimental poet living in Thorold, Ontario. His poetry was a Franco Cortese is an experimental poet living in Thorold, Ontario. His poetry was a winner of the 2020 UNESCO Sustainability Poetry Prize, was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize and has appeared in Literary Review of Canada, The Malahat Review, Canadian Literature, The Capilano Review, filling Station, ditch, and others. He is the author of a dozen-odd chapbooks through No Press, Gap Riot Press, nOIR:Z, above/ground press, Simulacrum Press, Trainwreck Press, Hesterglock Press, The Blasted Tree and Anstruther Press. His full-length debut, Lip, was published by Penteract Press in 2021.

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