Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #27: Christopher Dewdney (1984/87/88)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One section of the book dealt with Occupying the Margins, a chapter that examined the role of marginal art on eighties culture. By the Eighties, contemporary composers like Philip Glass, R. Murray Schafer and John Cage had already made a significant impact in pop circles with the help of David Bowie, Brian Eno and The Talking Heads. There were also sound poets like Bob Cobbing and bill bissett who expanded the notion of what was considered verse. While Canadian writer Christopher Dewdney is not a sound poet, he does look at language the way a geologist might examine layers of rock. Being the son of the renowned archaeologist, Selwyn Dewdney, none of this should perhaps come as a surprise. But throughout the Eighties, Christopher Dewdney shifted between works of non-fiction (The Immaculate Perception, 1986) , fiction and poetry (Radiant Inventory, 1988). Since we talked frequently during the decade and covered most of those books, I've fused together three excerpts from those talks into one post.

kc: Most people who turn to poetry often study or read it. You didn't. You studied things like geology and neurology instead.

Christopher Dewdney
cd: That's right. I didn't read other poets. In fact, I did my first book, Golders Green (1971), before I'd been influenced by any other writers. For me, poetry is a very strange area. It's like a Twilight Zone in which other kinds of fields can impinge. You can do things in poetry that you can't do in astrophysics or paleontology  two areas that I'm really interested in. Poetry is a very flexible but intelligent discipline. So I can do all of the things I want to do, plus exercise all my freedoms with poetry.

kc: Did getting interested in poetry though seem like a strange leap to make?

cd: (laughs) You know, last year I came to the realization that I have been publishing for over a decade. This is amazing. How did this happen? I really don't know. Since my policy is to never make a decision and to just let things happen, poetry fell within that policy. It just happened. As a result, I've become passionately in love with it. But it was nothing that I made a conscious decision to do.

kc: Might it have then been the scientist in you, someone who goes to the source of things, that fed your passion for language?

cd: To me, language is more than just a vehicle for meaning. It can become a form in itself, a harmony, a music. And there is a science to it, too. There's also an art to science and that's my favourite part of science. I go to those areas that are off the deep end, where we're lost and swimming over our heads, while at the same time possessing a blueprint for order that we hold in front of us like a compass. Then we can hold up this blueprint and say, "Ah, there's a black hole here in front of us." That's the common area that I find interesting in both science and poetry.

kc: Would you say then that there's a science of linguistics?

Dewdney reading from Demon Pond
cd: Yes. In fact, the science of the way words are put together is very interesting to me - especially because of its implications with brain structure. In that way, I can analyze language right down to morphemic levels. There is a real symbiosis between science and poetry. It's who I am and it's not an attitude that I've developed. Science is an extension of our perceptual systems.

kc: Speaking of perceptual systems, your book, The Immaculate Perception, takes us right into the brain.

cd: Yes. It really does deal with the brain, the neurological basis of perception, dream and language. And also, at the end, gets into some social and anthropological posits, or insights, which deal with the city and hormones; and this idea of erotic advertising as a manipulation of the hormones of a municipal area like Toronto or Edmonton. And I didn't know whether to describe this book as poetry, psychology, neurology, or philosophy. It really does cross over into a lot of zones. It's an interdisciplinary work, and it's scientifically true. So if you are a neurologist, or an anthropologist, I think you will find it congruent with your work.

kc: Your work actually brings together those two supposedly opposite sides: spirituality and science. Scientists often claim that spiritualism is mere superstition that can't be proven. Spiritualists claim that science is just cold materialism. You seem to start with the facts and then try to bring those two sides together.

cd: That's very true. The two are fused in my mind. For me, science is a way of describing the world. I guess, in a funny sense, it is my religion. But the odd thing about science is that it scares off people because they feel that it demystifies things. All it does, though, is explain things relative to it. Yet, ultimately, everything is still an absolute mystery. What I think we want is an explanation of miracle. And what The Immaculate Perception addresses is that people have been using superstition, or certain types of low-grade mysticism, as a way of deriving miracle in their lives. And yet we are surrounded by a miraculous matrix. Just to exist every second is a miraculous thing. That's what this book is about   demystify everything  and to apprehend the miraculous in the everyday. If we go back to the Big Bang theory of the universe, there is that moment  no matter how much you explain  of beginning. It's an indefinite zone of before, which is a concept outside of our ability to comprehend. And, if anything, that's close to the experience of God, or close enough for me (laughs).

kc: Let's talk about some of those areas in the deep end of the imagination that you mentioned a few moments ago. The book is filled with poignant points. I want to just read some of them and get your reaction.

cd: Okay.

kc: "Consciousness is a set of footprints in the snow which stop and then retrace themselves."

cd: (Pauses) That has something to do with the invisibility of consciousness. If you were looking at something that was conscious, like a human being, you would see them do things as if they were behaving under the influence of an invisible force. That is the effect of consciousness on nonliving things. Footprints in the snow are the only evidence of somebody having an idea, then they stop, and we retrace their footprints. In Kenya, one of the Leakeys discovered the footprints of a Homo Erectus  actually a mother and a father  and the footprints were going through ash obviously after a volcano eruption. You can see the mother's footsteps stop short of the father's where she obviously turned to the left to look over the horizon. They've been left perfectly imprinted for over two million years, and you can see the effect of consciousness on those footprints.

kc: "Consciousness is an end to the means." Then later in the book you say, "An end means to the."

cd: (Laughs) Alright, now you've thrown down the gauntlet! We are used to looking at consciousness as a way of getting things and as almost a technological acquisition. It's treated like a tool to do something. When I say it's an end to the means, I'm saying that consciousness is an end to all striving. To exist in a pure state of consciousness, is to see all striving. It's a Buddhistic thing, really. Half of the fun is getting there. An infinite part of the fun is getting there.

kc: In your book, Radiant Inventory, you have a wonderful line, "Now that I'm open, I can't be closed again." It suggests that once you've come through innocence, you can't go back again.

cd: For me, it's reminiscent of this graffiti I saw on a real estate sign recently. It said, "For my lady, keep her in my wound." It was really reminiscent of Arthurian legends. You know, the idea of the Grail and the King who had a wound that would never close. There is a wound of knowledge where once you know something, you can't come back from that knowledge. It's particularly true of psychological knowledge, but it's also true of having loved and having lost at love. It opens up a wound of sensitivity like acquiring a new perceptual organ. And once you become sensitized you can never become desensitized.

kc: You seem to regard language as a perceptual tool to investigate phenomenon.

cd: Yeah. It's a perceptual tool that keeps track of the way things change. And language changes you  that's the curious thing  and you don't so much use it, as much as it uses you. It pulls you behind, drags you around, and makes you do funny things.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier began a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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