Wayman Gets Real: The Emptiness of Abstraction: Interview with Tom Wayman, Part One

Recently I interviewed Tom Wayman following the launch of his latest book, the novel Woodstock Rising, at Selkirk College Library, Castlegar, BC. The interview is quite long but well worth reading for Wayman’s insights into the writing and publishing of poetry in this country. Wayman has published 26 books over a career spanning four decades, mostly poetry until his recent excursions into prose with Boundary Country (short stories), A Vain Thing (novellas), and his latest book, Woodstock Rising.

Tom Wayman, March 25, 2011. Photo ©2011 Sean Arthur Joyce


Joyce: I was trying to get at this whole idea that a lot of poets in the last 25–30 years particularly have abandoned political poetry wholesale. And that among some academic circles there’s been this sort of looking down their nose at political poetry, that ‘Oh, no that’s just not done, or if it is, you’re obviously a rank amateur who doesn’t understand that this is passé.’

Wayman: I would say that there’s an interesting parallel with art. In the ’30s there was a lot of art that was designed to reflect the actual condition of people’s lives, and the art world thought, ‘Well, we can’t have this.’ So that’s when abstract expressionism began, so that instead of showing Canadians and Americans as they lived their lives in their homes and at work, we had colours and blobs and shapes and really art about art. And I think the same thing is true, that after the culmination of the real drive for Canadian nationalism, when Canadian poets and other writers were trying to show Canadians to Canadians, and what is it like to be alive—and that includes the politics—there was a move to get rid of that when the powers that be decided they’d rather make money than have a country. Then they began to encourage writing that was much more abstract, writing about writing, or writing about language. So I see that as a parallel.

Of course in both cases, in abstract art and abstract writing it’s more conducive to academia because it requires an explainer. So it’s a kind of job-creation project for teachers. And I see that because the last eight years I’ve worked at the University of Calgary with people and that’s their bag. They’re all fine people and I really like them and respect them but I don’t like their writing, so we would just never talk about each other’s writing. But I think they’re going in the wrong direction and of course they think I’m going in the wrong direction. But just as art is great enough to overcome a period where it’s just art about art, I think the same is true about writing. There’s only so many ways to be abstract but there’s an infinite number of stories to tell just in the Slocan Valley alone. So that’s why I think there will be a self-correcting mood shift eventually. Some people will always be drawn to the abstract but I think that shift will come back toward art that articulates the real condition of people’s lives.

Joyce: And I have to thank and honour you for writing work poetry in your career, about conditions that people lived with at work…

Wayman: Well that came out of this era where the drive was to be honest and accurate about our lives, since work is a big part of everybody. It just seemed a natural development. But I think that’s where it comes from, that wish to be articulate and clear about what it’s like to go to work.

Joyce: I’m turning ideas around in my head for an essay titled The Death of Poetry AD 2011 and again I have to acknowledge you. Because when I was at college 20 years ago here, we interviewed you for our student magazine, and you said that poetry was “a brain-dead pygmy being kept alive on artificial life support.” That quote stuck with me all these years and I totally understood what you were getting at. Because there’s this irony that, when the Canada Council was created, it was desperately needed to help create some kind of Canadian literature and poetry. But over time it seems to have fossilized into something that perpetuates a kind of yacht club mentality where only members are allowed, so to speak, and only certain kinds of writing are let in. And that’s also led to this highly conceptualized, highly abstract poetry in Canada. But really if you look at the sales figures, or if you look at the audience, it’s not the public that’s reading these books, it’s other academics. So, in a sense, poets have only themselves to blame for killing their audience. Given your quote from 20 years ago, how do you feel about it now?

Wayman: Well I think your analysis is very accurate. I’ve actually heard a thesis defence where the poet said ‘I care more about the quality of my audience than the quantity,’ just that real elite idea that you know, ‘only my fellow geniuses understand.’ I totally agree, there’s a dark side to anybody’s support of the arts. If the church supports the arts, that’s really good but there’s a dark side to it. And it turns out that the Canada Council—which was a great idea—some of the dark side of it is becoming more evident. What to do about it is not so clear. Would you be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if you called for the end of the Canada Council? Or would that really be a step forward? I’ve made myself not very popular a few times by saying we should not have the Canada Council. People say, ‘No, no we should keep the good parts of it and let the bad parts go.’ So, I totally agree with you and your analysis but what to do about it, I think that needs more thought.

Joyce: That comes back to this novel that you’ve just published, Woodstock Rising, where you’re grappling with having all these people disagreeing about the particulars, and yet somehow having a cohesive movement for change, and actually accomplishing some degree of change. So with the literary situation, I see a parallel.

Wayman: Well, to me it’s just—you keep doing your own writing. No one is stopping us from writing. As I say, most of my colleagues like experimental or non-narrative, non-referential, non-linear writing, whereas I’m the reverse, I want all those things—I want it to be narrative, to be referential, I want it to be linear—but they’re not stopping me writing, so I’m going to go ahead and write the stuff I believe in. It’s not academically in vogue at all. I’ve heard critical colleagues point out that if you look at the theses being done on Canadian literature, none of it is being done on the major figures like Robertson Davies or Eli Mandel or anyone like that—

Joyce: —or Gwendolyn MacEwen…

Wayman: Yeah—it’s all these fringe figures because they’re the only ones that the abstract critical theories fit. So it’s all fringe and no centre. I think that’s the start of things swinging back into some kind of balance, when critics realize we’ve gone way too far. And it’s so obvious that—as you say—there’s only a tiny academic audience for this stuff.

The defence of it is always the same as what the Surrealists said in 1916, the idea that if we write in a different way, people’s brains will change—they’ll overthrow capitalism and institute a socialist paradise. Well we’ve had almost a hundred years of that and there’s actually no evidence that’s true at all. Surrealism for example is the number one mode of television advertising. So far from it changing people’s minds, it’s perfectly adaptable as just another interesting art form—in fact you can sell soap with it. And the same is true with a lot of this abstract, non-referential, non-linear writing…

In fact the way it’s been accepted by academia shows that it’s not at all a challenge to the status quo. And I’ve read that it’s the first time in history that what purports to be the avant-garde is actually pushed only by the academy. Always the avant-garde was outside the academy and antagonistic to it. Here it’s entirely contained within the fold. It just seems so disconnected from reality. But I guess I’m optimistic that this will pass. There’s not a lot of heart there. The head art, people get interested in it for awhile but it’s thin, it’s brittle, whereas the stuff that moves you emotionally in some way, that’s not just clever head games, I think that has a more enduring quality.

Joyce: I was just looking online last night at a ‘cutting edge’ Montreal press that’s published a book, where the whole premise of it is almost as if you’d spent an entire day surfing the web and clipped one sentence from every website and then strung it together. Well, okay sure, that might be a quasi-accurate reflection of our fractured digital culture. But as art, as poetry, is it going to move me? Is this book—30 years from now when I’m older sitting down by the fire—is this going to be the book that I take down and say, ‘Oh, I’ve really got to come back to this book?’

Wayman: That’s the imitative fallacy, the idea that, in order to write about boredom you have to write in a boring way, that if you want to write about our fractured world you have to write in a fractured way. That’s a fallacy; it’s actually not very good writing. If you write a boring book it’s just boring, or if you write a fractured book it’s just fractured. You’re not giving anyone any insight into boredom or any insight into fracture. I don’t think a lot of this will endure other than as the subject of academic theses. Until that fashion passes, and then it will be of interest to specialists in that time period.

But again I just want to stress, none of it stops us doing the art that we want to do, so I think you want to keep going and write what needs writing. It’ll sort itself out. It’s no reason not to speak out against it, which I’ve done, as you have. But not to let it become so overwhelming that it stops you, because they have no power in lots of ways. They have their own magazines and publishing houses but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Joyce: Well, to some extent they act as gatekeepers too because obviously they sort of set the fashion or the tone and what’s coming over the transom is going to be vetted by that screen.

Wayman: But poetry has never been stopped by too many gates or fences, if you know what I mean. There’s a whole vibrant world of spoken word poetry completely outside the academy; they don’t know what to do with it. And whether you like that stuff or not there’s a tremendous energy there, and young people get turned on to that world and they care about it and are engaged by it. It’s an energy centre that’s totally outside the academy.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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1 Response to Wayman Gets Real: The Emptiness of Abstraction: Interview with Tom Wayman, Part One

  1. Ross Klatte says:

    Hi Art,

    Your blog is beautiful, and full of good thoughts, notably your essay comparing The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Then your interview with Tom Wayman is excellent. I read the part one while still in Mexico and now, returned home, I’ll read the second part later today. I’ve bookmarked your blog for periodic reading. Bravo!


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