Jon Paul Fiorentino, funny person, has written a very serious book concerned in large part with the death of his friend and mentor, Robert Allen, and the relationship with sentiment this event touched off in the mind of one of our country’s great ironists. The final result is a book called Indexical Elegies, new this month from Toronto’s Coach House Press. Jon Paul sat down (electronically) with Torontoist’s Jacob McArthur Mooney last week for a conversation about indexes, misdirection, and the comfort afforded by our intellectual obsessions.
Jacob McArthur Mooney: Hi Jon Paul. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to start us off with a story. A 100% true one, too. It’s set a few months back, while I was waiting in line at the Toronto Greyhound station for a bus to Waterloo. To my surprise and excitement, the young lady behind me was enjoying Stripmalling, your comic novel featuring Evan Munday’s illustrations. I mentioned that I had recently seen you read from Stripmalling, and that I thought you had a new book coming out this fall, called Indexical Elegies.
Anyway, the woman’s reaction was a bit of a smile and then the response, “I can’t imagine this author being into either elegies, or indexing things.” I was too charmed by the answer to press for details. Obviously, Elegies and Stripmalling are wildly different books, tuned to completely different keys. But what, would you guess, did my busmate mean by that? In what ways is this book a unique creation in the context of its author?
Jon Paul Fiorentino: First of all, are you entirely sure she was enjoying Stripmalling? That seems odd. I think your busmate’s response makes perfect sense from a certain point of view. I have written two comedy books (Asthmatica and Stripmalling) and those are the books of mine people are most aware of. I have, however, been writing and publishing poetry since 1998. If you ever see your charming busmate again, please tell her I have range!
I like this idea of being able to write in more than one key. I suppose Indexical Elegies is written in a minor key. It’s a book about loss and the anxiety of loss. It documents and presents an archive of four years of attempting to come to terms with losing my friend and mentor, Robert Allen. Archive theory and indexicality played a large role in the composition the book—for a long time, the poems I had composed for Robert were too raw and lacked a sort of artful disconnect. Putting a theory into practice made these poems work, at least for me.
JMM: She seemed to be enjoying it. I remember muffled guffaws.
That framing work done by indexical theory is interesting. Can you give us a few words on the relationship between the index as style, and the elegy as specific tradition? Or am I getting it wrong, and the index is the tradition, the elegy the style? Or is it something different entirely?
JPF: Every time you fix your gaze on an archive, the archive changes. Or so they say. I wanted to put into practice a way to gesture to this idea. The CSP (Charles Sanders Peirce) sections and the little litanies (the Hymns) are there to distract and defer. I think all successful elegiac poetry has this quality of distraction and deferral. So in this sense the elegies are quite traditional. I guess what I want to say is that I was aware of the theory and practice of both elegy and index. They are both tradition and style in this context, but there is more emphasis on the elegy as content in this book. Otherwise I suppose I would have titled it Elegiacal Indexicalities.
JMM: Right. And it’s too bad, as Elagiacal Indexicalities would have moved 10,000 units on title alone.
That’s two answers now that describe some aspect of deferral. Before you were speaking of theory (not indexical theory, I know, but theory in general) as a way to distance yourself from the pure, sentimentalist, id-machine of grief. And now we’re onto the deferring power of the elegy itself. The mechanics of the approach-avoidance dance we sometimes do with the harsh reality of subject are always interesting.
First off, how certain are you that theory is a distancer, anyway? Because what we’re really talking about here is intellectualization, which is just another word for thoughtfulness. But thoughtfulness carries with it the sense of an intensified interaction with subject (connoting things like meditation and obsession) while intellectualization connotes a coolness (its cousin words being things like survey, study, and your word, theory). I wonder if you could say more about the patterns of approach lent to I.E. by your use of theory, because there’s a plurality of poems here that, while heavily influenced by third-party ideas, are personal, intense, and anything but distant.
JPF: First, I would say that the approach-avoidance dance is something we always do, unless we are terribly unhealthy. And yeah. The mechanics of that dance are always interesting.
I suppose I am not entirely certain that theory is a distancer. It seems a reasonable assumption though. I see what you’re getting at and I appreciate it. If there is any “intellectual thoughtfulness” in I.E.—other than in the title section —it would have something to do with my ongoing fascination with the regional and working against it (the Post-Prairie condition and the notion of the civic poem that is strategically infelicitous), etc. It makes sense that the non-elegy poems would rely less on concealment, doesn’t it? I dunno.
I do tend toward the almost confessional, intense moment in some poems. However, I would like to think that I earn that moment through some sort of process of rigorous play or strategically deployed poetry. What I mean by this is that where there are overt moments of intensity, those moments are hopefully offset by the poetry things of the poem— form and trope.
JMM: I like all the “Post-Prairie condition” stuff. My reading of that idea would go something like “the state of not wanting to feel embarrassed about where you came from.” Are there any non-geographical prairies in the book? You come from intellectual places in the middle section that you don’t seem to have this ambivalence about. Also, the Montreal poems, although you at one point call Montreal an “idiot,” do a certain amount of idolizing their setting. Is there something more to the rootedness of the earlier sections than just urban v. rural, or chosen v. born-into. “Robert Allen” is a kind of a home, isn’t he? He’s something you can root into, or move out of. And for that matter, I suppose poetry is a home, and theory is a home.
I’m not sure what my question is here. But, as near as I can tell, it might be: Is your wish to avoid “the regional” sustained or undermined by the specific theoretical concerns of I.E.? Are you concerned about a regionalism of the mind?
JPF: That’s an interesting way of looking at post-prairie. I think there is so much yet to be said about this “condition.” In 2007, the Plug-In gallery in Winnipeg did a show, curated by Steven Matijcio, called Scratching the Surface: The Post-Prairie Landscape. The results were spectacular. All of these artists, using Kroetsch’s and my term as a point of departure. Wanda Koop’s painting “Satellite Cities” captures something of the original intent of that term, I think. It’s complicated. It’s about what you say, and also about shared culture, marginalization, being unapologetic about addressing the regional but resisting any tendency toward regionalism. I absolutely love the different modes of inquiry and aesthetic practice that have come from this term. There is also a very elegant hardcover produced by Plug-In Editions, documenting the show, that has offerings from me, Robert Kroetsch, Alison Calder, Tomson Highway, Catherine Hunter, Rob Kovitz, Cyrus Smith on the writerly side, and Kim Ouellette, Simon Hughes, Daniel Dueck, and so many more brilliant visual artists. Full colour, beautifully designed.
I don’t think I mean to idolize Montreal. I love Montreal. Montreal is home, but I hate it sometimes for making me miss Winnipeg so much. But for the first time in my Montreal life—it was in 2008—I took a good look around and decided that I was no longer entirely out of place. This is documented in the poem, “Elizabeth Conway.” So I want to stress the difference between the regional and regionalism. I do not wish to avoid the regional—working with it and against it is what I am after. I need the regional. And yes, there are non-geographic regions in which the poet resides. It is very shrewd of you to point out that there is a potential for a “regionalism of the mind.” I think I have avoided that trapping.
JMM: I think so too. More importantly, I think most of those distinctions concern how we write ABOUT writing, and don’t actually impact how we create anything.
I’ve brought this up in an earlier interview, but you’ve made me think again about Lorna Crozier’s distinction between writers of a place (purposefully regional writers) and writers of place (people who can transport/import/export their attention to infinite locations). Your post-prairie ethic seems to speak to wanting to be the second kind of writer, as an evolution from your start as the first kind.
If we can circle back to theory again, I want to talk a bit more about the lens of indexical theory, and its impact on the source material of the middle section of I.E. What are we to make of all the hymns? In what way are they hymns? They seem to recalibrate the linguistic material of the poems they share the section with. In that way, are they specifically indexical hymns?
JPF: I think the Post-Prairie sensibility may be something like: I can have both ways of place—or many ways of place. Winnipeg is an infinite location. I’m thinking of the way Guy Maddin uses Winnipeg in his films. Montreal is an infinite location. I’m thinking of the way Nicole Brossard uses Montreal in her texts.
I think that is what they do, those hymns. They are streams of raw linguistic data. Little litanies that tether the poet to the subject of the elegy. They disorient the reader to a certain extent but there are sonic qualities and concerns in there too. And perhaps they are too specifically indexical at times. But I needed them, you know?
JMM: Maybe that word you just used, disorienting, is closer to how I perceive your use of the theoretical when approaching grief. You’re not exactly “distancing yourself” from feeling, you’re causing a disorientation of it. There are times in that section where the creation story is far removed from the text (like in those hymns), then the poem finds itself dizzying up against some naked, aphoristic, essence (like that thing about “there are poets trying to die” on one of the middle section’s untitled pages).
To move on a bit, and if I can sneak in a “career” question, where does this book sit on your bookshelf, in the full narrative of your writing practice? I’m thinking about our friend on the bus. First, let’s not discount the funny parts of I.E. It’s a serious book, surely, but a serious book written by a funny person. I wonder, has what you wanted out of writing changed much over the years spent writing this thing? Can we ever go home to Asthmatica again?
JPF: Asthmatica isn’t home for me. But I suppose some of its smart-ass attitude still feels like home. I think I.E. sits next to my other books and fits in quite nicely. It engages in a kind of lyric/alyric poetics that was explored (to a lesser extent) in Hello Serotonin and The Theory of the Loser Class. And it does not make earnest or predictable poetic gestures, and I’m proud of that.
Right now, I am writing a comedic novel called Invigilator. It’s the life story of a proctor of exams. It is not quite as metafictional or over-the-top as Stripmalling, nor is it as light and breezy and shticky as Asthmatica. Having said that, there will be competitive pillow fighting. And I’m sure some scenes will result in muffled guffaws. So, it turns out you can go home again!