Sunday, August 12, 2007

Wrestling with e-mail interviews

I picked up the new issue of filling Station in equal parts for the Adam Seelig interview with Gregory Betts and for the rob mclennan interview with Michael Holmes. Glad I did.

It meant passing over the new issue of EVENT magazine, which has been my default choice for awhile now. I'm sort of okay with that, now that the Elizabeth Bachinsky-Billeh Nickerson duo has been disrupted by Nickerson's departure. Say what you want about the state of litmags in this country. From a reader's perspective, I think they're lots and lots of vital reads, especially for people thirsting for new work from their favourite authors between books.

Anyway, the new filling Station interviews (Seelig-Betts, mclennan-Holmes, plus derek beaulieu on Jacqueline Turner, and Johnathan Ball on Robert Majzels) really got me to thinking about e-mail interviews. In journalism (my day job), an e-mail interview is usually frowned upon because it lets your interview subject off the hook. Any pointed question can be artfully dodged or deleted and threads begging for a follow-up get left dangling. You can hide those problems from your reader if you're only taking little slices from the e-mail exchange and especially if you're not looking for an in-depth perspective or to hold anyone's feet to the fire. Unfortunately, it's all laid bare by the transcription-style Q&As in filling Station.

I'm guessing that most literary interviews these days are conducted over e-mail. For instance, Turner was in an Australian residency at the time of her interview with beaulieu. I'm going out on a limb here, but odds are filling Station didn't pay to fly anyone halfway around the world. Perhaps it was a telephone interview. Perhaps. The interview contains a number of typos and strange punctuation choices and I'm tempted to say it's a counterbalancing charm that an e-mail interview can give you that she-e-mailed-me-herself feeling.

And, heck, no transcribing?

Yes, there are deeply important advantages to an e-mail interview, especially with shy, retiring poet-types who have the chance to reply to your questions with thoughtful mini-essays about their own work. You lose out on dialogue but you get a higher-quality monologue.

If the Holmes-mclennan interview was conducted in person or over the telephone, mclennan showed a good deal of restraint at either the interviewing stage or the editing stage. But again, the more likely scenario is that what's available in filling Station is an e-mail interview. As such, it underlines the limits of what the e-mail interview is capable of, especially if one simply sends a list of questions to the subject and, after a little editing, fires off the exchange to the mag's editors.

Holmes gets away with a number of provocative statements about free verse which beg for follow-up, especially from a poet such as mclennan. It's like Holmes is saying: En garde! In person, I'm sure mclennan would have employed the snort-and-retort jousting method, but here we get a long passage by Holmes calling free verse crap and this is how it ends:

Holmes: There's no such thing as free verse. You pay for it, always, somewhere along the line.

mclennan: How important is music to the way that you write?


Twice, Holmes tears a strip of mclennan, who doesn't bat an eye. Referring to critical response to Parts Unknown, Holmes' latest, wrestling-themed book:

Holmes: But rob, I don't think you “got it” either. At least you acknowledged that, mentioning that maybe the grappling stuff threw you. I wonder if you would have said the same thing about pomo theory, say, or hardcore gender politics. Because I'd argue, like Lisa Robertson writes about in The Weather, the wrestling stuff has nothing to do with the poetry—the music, the formal exploration, the way the words work on the page.

Alright, it seems like Holmes is looking to initiate a little wrestling match, and mclennan could certainly have held his own. But mclennan doesn't engage. Maybe that's the high road, but the reader loses out since it would be nice to see these comments drawn out by further questioning.

Alas, rob sidesteps the invitation to, uh, grapple. Very gentlemanly, but Holmes takes another swipe at mclennan instead:

Holmes. I'm never going to write a wholly successful poem because that “thing” just doesn't exist. Not anywhere; never has. [...] And rob, there's nothing arch or theory-driven in what I'm saying here, not at all. Nobody's that good—it's just not possible. Failure is all there is, all there ever will be. Every breath is a little travesty. That's why we try so damned hard to take another.

Okay, putting aside considerations of Holmes's apparent respiratory problem, don't you want mclennan to follow that up? Doesn't that provocative, dismal statement – which even comes with a personal attack – deserve some probing?

I think it does. The next question, however, is “What is happening with that other poetry manuscript?” And such is the limitation of the e-mail interview.

I think it might be my sort of motherly desire to defend rob mclennan, who's been so good to so many of us in the Ottawa poetry community, that got me into a flap initially, but I am really concerned about the effectiveness of e-mail interviews in being able to present a dialogue. I think that's especially true of poet-on-poet interviews. The calibre of filling Station's interviewers in this issue -- Ball, beaulieu, mclennan and Seelig -- certainly left me wanting more in the way of conversation. Or, uh, sparring.

So beaulieu isn't about to fly to Australia to meet Jacqueline Turner and I too would be weary about putting Holmes and mclennan in the same room. But perhaps a phone, a digital recorder and a $5 investment in a telephone-to-recorder hookup isn't entirely out of order. That's all I'm saying.