Poet Richard-Yves Sitoski talks to Sharon Berg

1. Your book offers a surprise that brings you galloping into the present age of technology. Not only is it illustrated as a printed book but the illustrations are set in an augmented reality powered by World Cast, an Owen Sound company that you say ‘is the heirloom tomato in the salad’. Further, you laud the Kp9 Interactive team for developing video and audio clips and say that The Ginger Press in Owen Sound ‘is the tarragon in the dressing’. It seems to me (for I love both heirloom tomatoes and tarragon in my salad dressing) you’re setting me up for a biased reading, as a book so hip cannot be disregarded. Yet, you’ve taken great care with your print version of the book. How did it come to be that you discovered this wealth of fresh approaches to book-making in the town of Owen Sound, ON, which as you say is ‘far from big city hubs’? What do you envision as the future of book-making?

rys: One of Owen Sound’s treasures is KP9, a homegrown boutique tech firm that has begun making waves internationally. KP9 is the brainchild of Wil McReynolds, with whom I had worked some years ago. We had always wanted to collaborate, and the fit seemed natural, as the WorldCast platform is designed to animate flat surfaces like book pages. Happily, my publisher Maryann Thomas at the Ginger Press – another of our treasures – was game for the idea. I knew that with the limited budget and time at my disposal, I could best use the platform to bring book illustration up a notch. You’ll see that I didn’t create intricate and abstract vispo (visual poetry) experiences; the tech is cutting-edge, but the poems are tofu-and-potatoes. As for the future of book-making, I’m confident that nothing will replace the paper codex, but I expect that technology will provide amazing ways to create entirely new forms of text – and poetry will be at the forefront, because some of the best poetry out there doesn’t even use words, but can be found in hybrid works, visual art, dance, drag, music, and site-specific landscape art.

2. Your poetry employs incredibly striking images (e.g. ‘Dandelions with puffs of geriatric hair’) and loads of internal rhyme (e.g. ‘this is a mistake I always make’), yet while for the most part your poetry would be labelled as free verse you are definitely using a variety of different structures for your poems. Can you speak to the importance that structure has to your poetry? Can you also speak to how any of the structures you used were dictated by your use of interactive technologies? Or were they?

rys: When I write, the form usually winds up being determined by the subject matter. Or rather, the form is part of the subject matter, and as each of the poems in No Sleep ‘til Eden was intended to take on one specific environmental or political topic, it simply followed that each of the pieces would be configured differently. It’s an approach I’ve always used, and probably grew out of my work writing songs and performance pieces, only here the diversity of topics and poetic personae is greater than my average. As a result, the book is a tin of assorted Belgian biscuits. Examples of how the technology specifically influenced the poems include “Coral Reef Acoustic Enrichment”, which was written expressly to be performed with histrionics and modulated speech. I make sport of sound itself in that one, reveling in onomatopoeia and consonance and assonance. Another example is the piping plover song. There’s nothing like instrumentation to bring a poem to life. Though, musical genius that I am, I called it a 12-bar blues when the verses cover 24 bars!

3. You seem to have consciously set out to speak to the way humans are forcing the extinction of various animals and employing racism. Some poems illustrate that corrupt governments are pushing populations to flee their countries while ‘Like any great villain/ Capitalism thinks/ it’s really the hero’. Indeed, your poetry covers numerous human evils. Yet, part way into the book you ask ‘if the road which brought me here// will take me back/ if I walk against traffic’. Do you see our future as human beings requiring us to walk against the flow of modern human pursuits in order to survive? This seems to contradict your excitement over the futuristic technologies you’ve used in book-making? Or does it?

rys: In answering your question, I will adjust your words to state that what we have to resist is not the flow only of those pursuits which find us at our worst. I’m the world’s grimmest optimist. No matter how dead set I am against human stupidity and cupidity, there’s something in our quiddity which saves me from total despair. The very technology which we are using to mess up the world can be the technology we use to clean it up. That doesn’t apply universally, of course, as the use of some tech (fossil fuels, for example) has always come at too high a price. But information tech can go either way, and it is especially problematic in that it has the greatest potential of any technology devised to transform the world for either good or ill. That’s because it is used universally and in just about every context imaginable. It’s also becoming increasingly politicized, and no good will come of that. But I simply refuse to discount human ingenuity. We’re not as dumb as we seem. Pessimism is just the worst form of confirmation bias. 

4. What would you say is the most fundamental difference between your earlier work and this new collection?

rys: Aside from the use of tech, this is the first book that I undertook as a commission. Because this book is my poet laureate legacy project, I had to set aside all the poems that I had been writing at the time – and which kind of arose spontaneously (as my poems tend to do) – and consciously write to topic. I have experience at this, as my first book, brownfields, is a critical history of my town and its post-industrial aimlessness. In that respect No Sleep ’til Eden can serve as the second panel of a diptych, as it deals with the global and the natural, while brownfields pins down the particular and the social.  Ultimately, the book wound up being part of a continuum of community practice that saw me engage in activist site-specific art interventions against the potential loss of local parklands, and create a chapbook with red wigglers as co-authors. (Yes, you read that right!)  

5. How did you arrive at the title? What was your intention for the title to do?

rys: As a title, No Sleep ‘til Eden is a statement that we’re on the hook, and there’s no getting off it unless and until we get to work putting all our ingenuity and muscle behind the process of restoring this planet to its antediluvian state. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream. Perhaps I’m naïve. But it is incumbent upon each of us to do our part, to do our best. No divinity is going to come down and save us. We’ve got to try to restore paradise – and there’s no time for napping. And of course, the title is also a nod to Motörhead and the Beastie Boys, whose works are essential listening.

6. How did you arrive at the form/structure of the work? Did you have a form/structure in mind when you started? What other forms/structures or shapes did you consider? What was driving the choices of form/structure – efficiency or something else …style, urge for innovation, compulsions of the genre, compulsions of a literary movement it aspires to connect with? 

rys: The basic tripartite structure of the book is pretty straightforward – there are sections with poems from the perspective of endangered species or habitats, from the perspective of humans in nature, and from the perspective of people in the human world. I had settled on that before I had begun writing and/or assembling earlier poems. Moreover, I wanted the tone, register, diction, shape, and perspective of each poem to differ. And I think I succeeded. Every single piece in the book is distinct, radically so. A prose poem here, a short lyric there. A snarky squib followed by some stream-of-consciousness. A goofy polar bear diary entry and a song about a lonely plover. Spoken word. Modified sonnets. I wanted to find forms suitable to a range of emotions, and appropriate to the politics of the piece. And I really endeavoured to prevent everything from being all doom and gloom, and wanted to leaven the heavy stuff with some fluff. Mind you, the overall tone isn’t very jolly, because we’re not living in a jolly world.

7. Are any aspects of the book that are autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (i.e., experiences – emotional and physical) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?

rys: Most of the poems make use of a third person narrator, and where the perspective is first person, as often as not it’s in the voice of an animal or even a plant. I want to reverse-anthropomorphize (theriomorphize?) the human: to make a human narrative into something wild. So that puts me in the clear. Or does it? It turns out that even then I’m sometimes speaking for myself, articulating something deeply personal, often straight out of my own life. In fact, poems such as “45.321496, -75.698250” and “Anatomy of the Ditch, etc.”, (whence “Dandelions with puffs of geriatric hair”), which are structured as lists of descriptions (all similes and metaphors), are in their extreme specificity really meant to illustrate single instants in the life of the narrator, which just so happens to be me, bearing witness to nature. And then there are the obviously autobiographical pieces, such as “The Garden”. Autobiography, provided it doesn’t deteriorate into solipsism, is a useful tool for establishing connections between people; optimally, an autobiographical piece is not an advertisement for the author, but a touchstone for shared, relatable experience.

8. Did you have an intended audience for the book? 

rys: Answering this question is tricky. I wonder if the people whom I’d like to reach, whose minds I’d like to change, have much time or use for poetry. By the same token, those who are most likely to respond to the message are a choir I’ve been preaching to for years. My home town has its share of climate change deniers and people who lack motivation, and who probably think I’m just virtue signalling. C’est la vie. When I’m in a bad mood I sometimes wonder if dialogue is even possible in these hyper-partisan days of (insert inflammatory pundit’s name here).

9. What was the most satisfying aspect about writing this book (other than perhaps the satisfaction of finishing it)?

rys: I love the fact that I got a chance to employ so many voices and registers. It was a huge challenge, because how do you write from the point of view of coral? I think that’s a first in world literature! Exploring and reflecting on my own environment was also a lot of fun: as with my first book, brownfields, much of No Sleep ‘til Eden is a response to where I live. I get to address my fellow Owen Sounders on our shared patch of turf, and I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get dirty. I’ll call out local authorities and enterprises on issues I disagree with, and as I am probably the only privately funded poet laureate in Canada, I am not a tool of municipal council or our BIA tasked with being a civic booster. I can come down hard on a decision to flatten a priceless grove of butternuts in order to erect yet another downtown-eviscerating big box plaza.

10. Are there any aspects of the book you would like to change /tinker with?

rys: I wish I had a bigger budget so I could provide people with more abstract, cerebral and stimulating vispo, such as genre-busting animations and glitch art. More songs and spoken word would have been fun. As it is, the AR properties were designed to highlight the works of local artists, and so they serve as multimedia illustrations of the poems. But augmented reality can do so much more. KP9’s tech can allow me to create virtual poetry crawls, wherein I can place poems (text and video) at any GPS coordinates on the planet without the use of QR codes. Heady stuff.

(Note: WorldCast is the tech platform that’s used to generate the AR properties; KP9 is the firm that created it and with whom I worked)

Photo Credit: Anne de Haas

Richard-Yves Sitoski (he/him) is a songwriter, performance poet, and the 2019-2023 Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, Ontario, on the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Fire, Train, The Fiddlehead, The Maynard and elsewhere. He is the 2021 John Newlove Award winner and a 2021 Best of the Net nominee. His latest book is No Sleep ‘til Eden, an augmented reality multimedia collection of poems on the environment. When not chasing his impossible cat, he uses guitars to make sounds unheard since the Cretaceous. rsitoski.com / @r_sitoski

Listen to Sitoksi reading apres toi le deluge