Interview with Karen Mac Cormack. Queen Street Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 4, Winter 2000. pp. 53-61.

Marjorie Perloff writes of Karen Mac Cormack, "No one writing poetry in North America today can match Karen Mac Cormack's exquisite poise, the integrity of her poetic line, her command of verbal nuance, pun, and paragram." Astounding readers since her first collection of poetry, Nothing by Mouth (Underwhich, 1984) -- which Judith Fitzgerald called "quite simply, a masterpiece" -- Mac Cormack has continued to produce challenging and remarkably invovative texts, each volume continuing, yet expanding upon, her interests in the nuances of language, verbal disjunction, the mechanics of the sentence, and the discourse of both formal and quotidian textuality.
          Born in Zambia, and living at various times in the United States, England, Mexico and Canada, Mac Cormack is the author of eight collections of poetry including Straw Cupid (Nightwood, 1987), Quill Driver (Nightwood, 1989), Quirks and Quillets (Chax, 1991), Marine Snow (ECW, 1995) and The Tongue Moves Talk (Chax/ West House, 1997). Mac Cormack's work has been anthologized in such collections as Into the Nightlife (Nightwood, 1986) and The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative North American Poetry (Sun and Moon, 1994), as well as the important Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK (Reality Street, 1996) and Moving Borders (Talisman House, 1998). In 1998, Mac Cormack published her most recent collection, FIT TO PRINT, a collaboration with British poet Alan Halsey that utilizes and interrogates the structure and language of contemporary newspapers.

Karen Mac Cormack continues to live, write, and edit in Toronto.

Stephen Cain is completing his Ph.D in poetry, poetics, and publishing.


Stephen Cain: You have recently published the collaborative project, FIT TO PRINT, with British poet Alan Halsey. How did this collaboration come about, and how did it work?

Karen Mac Cormack: FIT TO PRINT is my first finished, published collaboration. (Steve McCaffery and I now have two incomplete collaborative works, both titled "From a Middle." The first was abandoned more than ten years ago, the more recent one we began in June 1999.) FIT TO PRINT was already underway when I decided to re-read Alan Halsey's Reasonable Distance at the end of December 1995. I wrote a poem as a response to it (though not in the double column format that dominates FTP) and sent it to Alan, whose own response (poem) to the then-recently published Marine Snow crossed the Atlantic at the same time (January of 1996). I then sent him the existing FTP poems along with a description of the project and he responded to those, at which point we realized a collaboration was in effect. (I should mention that I first met Alan in England in 1989 when he came to a reading of Steve's and mine in Oxford. Prior to that I'd written to him [after reading some of his work in Writing magazine earlier in the 1980s] so a correspondence was already in place.)
          FTP's format on the page intentionally refers to that most daily of reading materials -- the newspaper. However, the poems themselves, while displaying a concern with and for daily events (and these range from earthquakes to conditions of weather), do not adopt a "transit" theory of meaning. Together we approached the newspaper format as a way of fusing issues of mass culture with a non-traditional writing practice. The newspaper column produces unexpected ruptures that the reader learns to negotiate. Our intention was to apply this achieved negotiation to a writing that departs from the "habit" of a conventional language.
          Most of FTP was written on either side of the Atlantic and the poems were sent sometimes singly to and fro, sometimes in batches. (Alan was still living in Hay-on-Wye in Wales and we were both amazed that on average our letters took three days to arrive in either direction! Alan bought his first computer while FTP was in the works [his initial FTP poems were done on a word processor].) Alan did visit Steve and myself when we were living in California in 1997 and that was the only time we discussed the work face to face and wrote some of it in the same locale. I don't recall either one of us suggesting changes to one another's poems and the collaborative process was an arm's length one.
          FTP was eventually considered "complete" by summer of 1997. The order is more or less chronological. I'd hoped to tackle as many aspects of the newspaper as possible (but the Sports section defeated me, so I was delighted when Alan dealt with that so effectively!).

SC: How do you feel the process of FIT TO PRINT affected your own writing? Would you work with other poets in the future?

KMC: The collaboration's effect on my own writing is more difficult to express. To have another writer as intensely involved in the same project yet whose work responds to that project differently (and because of that makes one see one's own in a new way) impelled me to test limits more strenuously than ever. By limits I mean the parameters of the project (not all the poems in FTP took the form of the newspaper's double column), and my own "risk taking" insofar as what could work seemed to escalate. That experience has contributed immensely to my subsequent writing.
          As for working with other poets (or visual artists or videographers or anyone else!), Steve and I haven't abandoned our second attempt at "From a Middle," and I'd welcome the opportunity to collaborate in other situations.

SC: Can you talk about your new project, At Issue, which is in some ways a continuation of your exploration of print media initiated in FIT TO PRINT?

KMC: I decided that I wanted to continue working with a form of mass culture (At Issue began while I was still working on FIT TO PRINT -- I write slowly and my projects often overlap). In At Issue I examine the format and contents of the magazine instead of those of the newspaper. The interruptions and syntactical dis-arrangements in At Issue reflect the experience of reading that format (within what is certainly a critical agenda on my part).
           At Issue is a series of poems utilizing the vocabulary and spelling found in magazines of a diverse nature. (An interesting if frightening fact is that there are fewer typos in Vogue than in most scholarly books published in North America!) To counter Vogue I have also been writing through Self (a health/fitness magazine also geared to female readership). As other alternatives I've considered a science journal (perhaps Scientific American), a news magazine, and perhaps a computer-oriented journal. Originally the project was to incorporate four (monthly) magazines at a year's worth of issues, one issue per poem. Having gone through nine issues of American and British Vogue (at time of writing I'm working on the tenth) and four of Self I think that those two magazines will provide the right amount of material and that At Issue will either become a chapbook or a section in another book.

SC: You hold both British and Canadian citizenship, and have lived in several countries including Zambia and the United States. Do you feel that geography -- or movement between various locales -- has played any part in the development of your aesthetic, or how you view borders (either textual or political)?

KMC: Most of my life has been lived in an "elsewhere." I have access to three citizenships, having been born in what is now Zambia to British/Canadian parents, who lived there only briefly before embarking on what for me became a trans-Atlantic upbringing (I was less than a year old when they returned from Zambia to England). Subsequently, from 1974 to 1982 I lived for varying periods in Mexico, Greece, Italy and the U.S. and there again (in California) in 1989 and 1997. Perhaps more revealingly, between 1989 and 1995 my books were published outside of Canada, even if poems of mine continued to appear in Canadian journals.. Then Marine Snow was published here and the collaboration with Alan Halsey FIT TO PRINT. (The chapbook Multiplex with work by Ron Silliman and myself [not a collaboration] appeared in October 1998 through Wild Honey Press in Ireland.)
           I don't identify with geography in terms of a sense of 'place' being core to my creativity. Certainly the fact I've lived in many different places (as well as travelling extensively) has contributed to my perception of how and in what ways and degrees 'difference' manifests culturally, politically, personally. I don't think that travelling per se has played any part in how I view textual borders.

SC: How does gender play out in your writing, and in your view of innovative writing in general? While the appearance of -- and your inclusion in -- such anthologies as Out of Everywhere and Moving Borders suggest that much of today's radical poetry is being produced by women you have also noted the disparity in the ratio of women to men appearing in anthologies both past and contemporary.

KMC: The anthologies Out of Everywhere and Moving Borders (the first published by Reality Street Editions in the U.K., the second by Talsiman in the U.S.) both 'prove' that women are innovative practitioners. I'm keenly aware of the fact that in many English-speaking countries male innovative writers still outnumber women in terms of published work. Certainly there have been discrepancies in past anthologies in both directions (indeed, in gatherings of conventional poetry women might sometimes outnumber men!).
          Gender is certainly part of my writing (there are differences between women and men and in the way they express themselves creatively or otherwise), and sometimes I deliberately draw attention to this. I've also drawn attention to the fact of difference between languages (for example, the existence of gendered nouns, even in Old English).
          For me to discover innovative work (writing, visual art, film, video) is a pleasure and if a woman is the artist that adds to my pleasure, but it's not a prerequisite for enjoyment. Nor does the enjoyment diminish if the artist is a man.

SC: As well as expressing an interest in the nuances and potentialities of language your poetry also exhibits a keen awareness of the page, and how the placement of words alter and/or generate meaning. What are your thoughts on the relation between typography and poetry?

KMC: I've been fortunate to have worked mostly with publishers/designers who invited and encouraged my participation in the publishing process of each of my books. I've learned from each one of them. Straw Cupid was probably the book I was most actively involved in in terms of design. Maureen Cochrane and I went through every decision and worked through every layout problem together on what was my second publication. But when Chax Press decided to publish Quirks & Quillets (as a trade publication) I wanted Charles Alexander to "surprise" me. (Chax Press's handmade, limited editions are extraordinary.) The proofs were sent to me but beyond that I had no idea what the book would look like (though I encouraged Cynthia Miller to do an original drawing for the cover and I'm delighted with her response to that work. She's also responsible for the artwork on the cover of The Tongue Moves Talk). Texts are always affected by typography, but I'm not a designer, I'm a writer whose projects sometimes require new (for me) ways of thinking about typography and making a text work 'on the page.' (My methods for achieving this aren't necessarily the most expedient, as I learned after the fact about FIT TO PRINT!)

SC: How would you characterize the development of your writing from your first work, Nothing by Mouth, to the most recent?

KMC: My early work was an exploration of altering the way we perceive the day-to-day, while allowing "language" to be shown as an entity itself (rather than a transparent vastness through which to "see" our world). This led to an investigation of "sentence effects," particularly the integration of poetic line with prose period. (This was not to enact a conciliatory synthesis of the two genres, but to delineate their radical sympathies and contradictions, i.e. not to write a prose poem, but to reclaim an exploratory usefulness from the sentence, in order to extend the poetic form to more challenging/rewarding modes of readership.) So what began in Quill Driver (1989) as a propositional language, becomes in Marine Snow (1995) a fusion of propositional language with stanzaic configurations (in order to explore phenomenological and social implications in perception, when the latter is mediated through the orthodox and the errant trajectories of language, writing and space). Quirks & Quillets (1991) explores a similar state of mediation but utilizes a different momentum by suppressing the period in favour of a series of brief, intense phrasal continua. For the most part, the writing deliberately avoids punctuation so that grammatical patterns can shift in both their functions and effects. The intention was not to produce an 'abstract' or non-referential text, but to reveal how meaning emerges in the sites of its production.
          The Tongue Moves Talk (1997) explores the perceptions, misconceptions and current role of the social concept of the "carrier." The poems deliberately repudiate any of the "reader comforts" of familiarity and habituality of normative language. The Tongue Moves Talk establishes a deliberate resistance, structured upon patterns that offer a rigorous positioning of their linguistic materiality.

SC: How do the somewhat aphoristic statements in your poetry function? (Ex. "Beauty is a cultural decision." [MS]; "Sex is its own conclusion for those who haven't noticed." [TMT]; or, "Take away the page and leave the writing." [QD]). While they are often taken up as the most quotable, or the "actual" expressions of your personal thoughts regarding writing and/or philosophy are they always intended to be so? Are they perhaps stylistic "red herrings" for those readers who tend to gravitate toward any sense of stability in de-centered texts?

KMC: The "somewhat aphoristic statements" that recur become part of the exploration of meaning. "Beauty is a cultural decision." is followed by "All hollow." There's a shift in "Sex is its own conclusion for those who haven't noticed." (A reader can infer that certain people haven't noticed that sex is its own conclusion and/or that that conclusion is only for people who haven't noticed . . .) "Take away the page and leave the writing." might refer to a computer screen and/or it could also imply that writing exists independently of paper. I'm particularly inclined to alignments that disrupt/ destabilize conditioned (or conventional) combinatory meanings and some of these are more (or less) aphoristic, for example, "Begin with four quarters a round-edged coin." is less aphoristic than "Don't covet the past it belongs where it is over." (both from Quill Driver).
          "Meaning" and the weather both change. Why an insistence on the static as a given, in what is anything but a stable environment? Meaning is at once precise for the moment and shifting over time. Consider slang, for example. "Gay" meant something very different for the Victorians than it does for us: a "gay" woman was a prostitute. "Queer" as in 'odd' was in relatively recent usage, if not in North America then in other English-speaking countries. The titles of two of my books both came from slang, Quill Driver means 'writer' (at least eigteenth century, possibly older), and Quirks & Quillets ('tricks and devices') was in use in the sixteenth century). "Bread," as in "out of bread" formerly meant out of work, slightly different from its 1960s meaning (the roots are over two hundred years old). "Pig" referred to a police officer as early as 1811, but who's to guess that "tickle text" refers to a parson?

SC: Gertrude Stein appears to be a major influence on your writing, but what other figures, either Modern or Contemporary do you view as influential or inspiring? What about LANGUAGE writing? In the "Toronto Since Then" issue of Open Letter (8.8, 1994), Victor Coleman characterized you (and Steve McCaffery) as standing "a lonely watch" over the "paucity of language-centered poetry in Toronto." Is this a fair assessment: do you consider yourself a LANGUAGE poet, does the aesthetic itself require a geographic community (whether that be Vancouver or Buffalo) to be considered a viable force in the literary community (national or international), and has Toronto changed "since then"?

KMC: As to the question regarding L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and poetry, and my position therein: upper case/equal sign "L" writing encouraged me to recognize and confront my own habits and formulae -- to move on and grow, and I regarded "L" writing as more contemporarily vital than anything else I'd encountered when I came to it in 1982. (As an aside, I read Bataille's Death and Sensuality two years before reading any "L" writing.) But it was through L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing that I went on to read the work of such modernist poets as Mina Loy and William Empson. Though they are usually overshadowed by the more luminous Joyce, Stein (and my 'favourite' Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood I read early, when I was sixteen]) their texts for me are of considerable importance. Indeed, I would say that the writing of all of the above-mentioned has influenced my own, though not necessarily in an immediately apparent way. I would also add to the list the French writer Francis Ponge and the Austrian Robert Musil.
          I don't think a writer's "position" should require a sharing of 'confidences,' explication of 'codes,' divulging of 'experiments' made-on-the-way-to completed works; in short an "explanation," which may or may not benefit those interested. The act of writing is simultaneously intensely personal and historically collective (whether or not the writer is aware of prior works of shared or similar concerns and explorations). This act is separated from the reading of text-on-page through time, and the further removed one is (in time) the more general the context. (Hence our perception of those 'decades,' 'eras,' and 'movements' of our own century [and the many preceding] culminates in such blanket terms as "modernism," "neo-classicism," and "romanticism.") Thus L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing became LANGUAGE writing becomes language writing . . . I'm not an upper case/equal sign practitioner but the effect on my work is evident.
          Certainly Toronto's poetry condition (yes, that's deliberate) has changed since Victor Coleman's 1994 "Toronto Since Then," and geographic communities usually prove to be unstable. Whether or not any version of language writing would ever be considered a "viable force" in any literary context isn't the point as far as I'm concerned. If texts survive because readers continue to find them rewarding in new contexts then that's viable.

SC: You have objected to the term "experimental" in discussing the writing of, for example, Stein, preferring the term "innovative." What is the problem with "experimental," how does "innovative" differ, and where do terms such as "avant-garde" or even "normative writing" fit in your understanding?

KMC: Even today we live with the troubling term "avant-garde,"a word so familiarthat it's used without giving the meaning much thought. Most of the writers I know want no part of the "garde" even in some distant future, so being slotted into the "avant-garde" makes for an uncomfortable mis/fit. Others accept this term as a badge or indicator of their work being outside of the norm. Some prefer (and embrace) the soubriquet "experimental," if anything even more misleading, or as the late B.S. Johnson so aptly put it:

I object to the word experimental being applied to my own work. Certainly I make experiments, but the unsuccessful ones are quietly hidden away and what I choose to publish is in my terms successful: that is, it has been the best way I could find of solving particular writing problems. Where I depart from convention, it is because the convention has failed, is inadequate for what I have to say. The relevant questions are surely whether each device works or not, whether it achieves what it set out to achieve, and how less good were the alternatives.

Elsewhere, John Cage has written:

The word experimental is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as an act the outcome of which is not known.

If a writer, or any other artist for that matter, applies the term "experimental" to an unknown result in a public context then how can one suspend evaluation? If the various and numerous acts the outcome of which "is not known," were to be combined with an absence-of-evaluation then the recurring result would frequently be one of mediocrity (at best) Without experimentation no 'new' results would be forthcoming, but I concur with Johnson that one's unsuccessful experiments should remain privately hidden away.
          So we arrive at "formally innovative" or even "formally investigative" as alternatives to the outmoded or inappropriate terms still applied to writing practices regarded as variously "new" today. At this point "innovative" seems just as much a label of convenience as any other but it signals a more positive (for me) sense of departure from "normative writing."

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