Saturday, March 14, 2015

Talking Out of Turn #36: bp Nichol (1988)

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 radically 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 who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply 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 uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a number of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton, producer of On the Arts
In a decade, that many considered to be drowning in narcissism, I decided to include interviews in Talking Out of Turn with artists who posed alternatives in the Eighties to self-centredness when it came to examining the self. That included Wallace Shawn talking about the process of making (with Louis Malle and Andre Gregory) the highly experimental fictional documentary My Dinner with Andre (1981), D.M. Thomas inserting into fiction the theories of Freud and the horror of the Holocaust in The White Hotel (1981), and William Diehl, a pulp fiction writer (Chameleon, Sharky's Machine), who was also a pacifist who wrote violent dramas to purge himself of the turbulence he had within him. The chapter on biography also included the Canadian poet bp Nichol whose life work in both narrative and experimental poetry was almost always autobiographical in nature. Whether it was his epic poem, The Martyrology or the more compact Selected Organs (Black Moss Press, 1988), Nichol never lost touch with his personal attachment to language which became a living organism in his work. One might call Selected Organs a body of work and a work of the body. It was also only a portion of a larger volume (planned over eight years) to be titled Organ Music, which featured autobiographical chapters focusing on the organs: The Vagina, The Mouth, The Chest, The Tonsils, The Hips, etc.

Here is a sample from Selected Organs where bp Nichol writes on The Chest:

You were obsessed with it. Everyone was obsessed with it. On the edge of thirteen when Carol Wisdom’s chest started to develop you couldn’t take your eyes off it. Until you were twelve everyone who was your age had a chest. But then you turned thirteen & you had a chest & she had breasts on her chest & your chest was puny & he really had a chest & she was chesty & all the bad puns began about being ‘chest friends’ & it was ‘chest too much’ or ‘two much’ or ‘two for tea anytime baby (which of course you always said to a guy coz you were too embarrassed to say it to a girl) & suddenly you had discovered chests as if they had never been there before & they were everywhere, everywhere, & you were obsessed with them..

From the age of five to the age of sixteen you kept getting chest colds. Once a year for three weeks you’d be sick in bed, your voice getting deeper (which you liked), your breathing shallower (which you hated), your nostrils redder, your face whiter, saying mutter for mother muttering for her. She’d bring you gingerale (to soothe your throat), vicks vaporub (to clear your head), & you”d say ‘I’m gedding bedder’ over & over again like a charm clutched to your hopeless chest, ‘I’m gedding bedder’ you’d say, sinking further into the sheets, ‘I’m gedding bedder’, til the bed & you were one pale continuous tone, white on white in white, ‘I’m gedding bedder—bedder.’

It was where longing resided. It was what you played your cards close to. It was one of the few body parts rhymed with the furniture & it held hope or tea or linen. It was a clear noun, substantial, the only named part that didn’t seem small, didn’t seem somehow smaller thru naming. It had no funny names or corny names or dirty names & it was the largest part of all. You stuck it out. You puffed it up. It was chest. What it was was chest.

You didn’t think of the chest as sensitive until you danced with her. You were thirteen & the dance floor was crowded & tho the moving bodies of your friends pressed you together you would only allow your chests to touch & there was heat & pressure & movement between you & your chest was ten times more sensitive than your hands, felt more than your eyes could see, & your trapped heart pounded as if you would die, explode, right there before her eyes, disintegrate from the ache & longing. You were in love, your chests were in love, as the music & the crowd carried you, pressing you closer & closer together, over that moving dance floor that dark warm August night.

When you went into therapy all the language changed. Now the chest was something you got things off or bared, some place you shouldn’t keep things inside of, as if it were a vessel & feelings held there grew stagnant, festered, expanded under pressure until released to air. In the shakey diagramming of the unconscious it was where deep lay—deep feelings, deep disturbance—or you thot it was because weren’t you always being told you shouldn’t be too heady, shouldn’t talk off the top of your head, that it was bad to be cut off at the neck, dead from the neck down, & from the neck down is where the chest is. But not too far down because after all you weren’t supposed to dump shit on anyone either, or talk a load of crap, piss on the them, be a shit, & what was left then but the chest unless, of course, you had a gut feeling. But gut was too ambiguous, too subject to the charge you were just spewing vomit. No. It was the chest. It had to be the chest; that was where the heart was & the heart was good. You were good-hearted, had a lot of heart &, when you got right down to things you had a heart to heart, really opened up, bared your chest & spoke from your heart all your real feelings, your deep feelings, got everything off your chest, just like you were supposed to.

Given that bp Nichol was a poet, he was a great inheritor of an oral tradition, a process we begin to examine as the interview begins.

poet bp Nichol
kc: Selected Organs is a slim book considering the eight years taken planning it. Why so short?

bp: Partly it has to do with the style. It's the least forgiving form I've ever worked in. Unless I get the rhythm absolutely right in the first sentence, the thing won't go on. It just stops dead in its tracks. So I have to abandon that particular take and try another one. So that's one problem. Secondly, once you begin to focus on a part of the body and take on, let's say, the nose – which I haven't written about yet, but is massing [laughs] – it's a matter of accumulating incident. These pieces don't follow a narrative structure, they're episodic and anecdotal, which is very much the form that oral storytelling takes. I'm thinking now of sessions sitting around with my grandmother with my brothers and sisters and maybe a great-aunt and uncle and then people start telling stories. There's an element of game to it where someone tells a funny tale and then someone tells another one, maybe that trips off a sad story, or maybe it trips off an observation with jokes, and you go on to another one. Though there are narratives within the individual episodes, there is no overall narrative. So I accumulate these little sections and let them reach critical mass.
kc: Why did you decide to take on that oral storytelling tradition of your grandmother?

bp: It began because I had certain stories and anecdotes that I've always told. Over and over again, I found myself in certain situations telling a tale from my childhood like the one where I hated my toes when I was a kid. This incident made me feel quite suicidal when I was about 15 which seems hardly the thing to inspire teenage suicide, but in my case, it definitely pushed me towards the edge [laughs]. A true out-of-body experience except it didn't go anywhere but into self-loathing [laughing]. In doing that, I decided one day to start writing these things down. I would just take a flyer at it. The form of the thing then started to announce itself. Which is often the way it happens. But this was also a different process. In my poetry, I always start from the ear. It'll start with a word, or a phrase, or a whole line. But I'd never taken something which had existed purely in an oral format and tried to translate that into a print medium. That was interesting for me.

kc: As I was reading the book, I was struck by how certain phrases concerning the body have entered into common use in the language, as slang, or in phrases like 'a slip of the tongue.'

bp: Yes. One of the things that interested me from the very beginning was how we use the body metaphorically. Susan Sontag's terrific book, Illness as Metaphor, talked about disease in our time like cancer being a metaphor for things. Probably, in time, AIDS will be as well. Right now, it's just terror. But it will soon have that metaphoric transformation just as TB did in the 19th Century. But you're right. It's also true, just in general, of the body. Look at the way we say things like 'I have to get this off my chest,' as if we were carrying a huge stone there. Something like 'he really touched me' doesn't mean physical touching, but we are using it metaphorically. The language is full of metaphor all the time in common expression. As I began to get into using an oral storytelling form, I saw how this metaphoric aspect of language became part of the text.

kc: How so?

bp: I was able to recover memories, or things I hadn't thought about in years, by approaching them through metaphor. When you're a kid, you tend to take those things quite literally. For instance, I wrote an episode about the hips where I fall in this ditch. I remembered the incident, but I never really thought about the position of my body, or what kept me afloat. The slush, for instance, had a quicksand consistency. In that same section of the book, I told stories about 'Boxcar Annie' who I saw as a child as this Queen of the Hobos. But I'd never focused before on what was so impressive about her besides her log-chopping capabilities. And the memory that I hadn't thought of in years was the one about going to the jazz clubs with Sandy and the whole business of 'being hip.' My mother also had expressions about the hips. I'd totally forgotten those. "Too bad you've got the workman hips," she used to say.

kc: You begin the book with The Vagina, which is probably no accident since we all begin there [both laugh].

bp: [laughing] Yeah, well, this just happened to be the first one I started to write down. When I finished that piece, which is about seven sections long, Daphne Marlatt, who was editing Periodics Magazine at the time, said to me, "Boy, I really like this piece. Can I publish it?" So right away, I had very direct feedback on it and that was highly encouraging. I think that made me realize that there was something that I was doing in this work that was interesting and beginning to approach the issue of autobiography.

kc: In what way?

bp: I had always been interested in how you write an autobiography. Most autobiographies tend to be about self-serving brushes with greatness, and I was fascinated more with finding a form in which one could indeed be autobiographical and at the same time not talk about brushes with greatness. I wanted to go back to the oral storytelling methods which deal with the business of being.

kc: In that sense, you could call your book Beyond Narcissism [both laugh]. You start with the body, which is your own, but you then move beyond that into something we can all identify with even if you were the only one to fall in that ditch as you did.

bp: That's right. I found when I did readings from the book, too, I would touch off memories in the audience. I have one portion in the section on the toes where I talk about toe jam. I remembered that whole mystery as to how dirt ever got into your feet. That was a quintessential mystery. You had your shoes and socks on. So how did dirt ever get in there because you were covered? People really identified with that or knew someone with a parallel experience.

kc: That makes for a different kind of autobiography. In a sense, it becomes everybody's autobiography.

bp: [laughs] Now there's a perfect Gertrude Stein title: Everybody's Autobiography. Now autobiography was an issue that Gertrude Stein also explored a lot. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she was always attacking the question of what is the shape and form of autobiography.

kc: I know it may be awhile yet before we see the complete Organ Music, but will there be further sections to come?.

bp: Oh, yeah. There's one section I'd done called The Lily, which isn't included here, I wanted one held back to keep me going.

kc: I see. It's like those new CD box sets featuring unreleased tracks.

bp: That's right. This will be like the complete Eric Clapton [laughs]. It will probably take me another seven years to get them all done.

kc: I hope I'm still around here at the time it's released [laughs].

bp: Yes. I hope you are, too.

**Unfortunately, time ran out on both of us. For bp, who had already been diagnosed with cancer, he would die from the disease a few months after our conversation. In fact, this turned out to be the last time I saw him alive. Since I knew how sick he was during our interview, maybe I suffered from 'a slip of the tongue' when I concluded our talk by expressing the hope that I'd still be there when the book would be finished. Within the year, I'd move on from CJRT-FM to CBC Radio to work as one of the producers on Prime Time.            

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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