Stuart Gill Interviews Stephen Bett
In Those Godawful Streets Of Man: A Book Of Raw Wire In The City, published in 2015, Stephen Bett writes about disconnection, about the feeling of being lost in a city surrounded by people. He uses language to demonstrate disconnection between people but also the way that we can become disconnected from language. In this book, Bett writes about a common cultural issue to acknowledge it as a problem, and perhaps, to find some tragic beauty in it as well.
Front Porch: Is there a particular city you had in mind when you wrote this book?
Stephen Bett: No, not in the slightest. I’m talking strictly “generic”―urban blight, urban core, urban ghetto, whatever label you want to use; what society has been concerned with for well over a hundred years, in fact, with its roots in the industrial revolution: urban landscapes marred with factories, gritty filth, smog, etc. As long ago as 1910, Eliot wrote one of his major poems, “Prufrock.” He starts that poem, significantly, with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno, and then immediately his narrator invites the reader on a journey through a “modern” fin de siècle version of hell, the urban landscape itself. Undoubtedly, Eliot was thinking of Soho, in London, but that’s well beside the point because he’s trying to introduce us to what he sees as the eminent demise of civilization itself―early 20th [century] modernity, and in particular the ugly urban cityscape. Of course my own “poet grandfather” figures are on the opposite side of the literary fence from the archly conservative (“classicist” and “royalist”!) Eliot. I’m talking about the avant modernists, Pound, and, especially, for me, William Carlos Williams. But conservatives and liberals alike have forever been railing about the inhumane urban landscape. Personally, I’ve never lived in urban blight, having spent most of my life in large cities like Toronto and Vancouver (teaching college English), which, generally speaking, are vibrant, culturally enriched cities (of course they have their blighted areas too). Think Detroit, I guess. Essentially, though, in this book I’m in one sense back to my earlier writing’s subject matter: satirizing what I like to call the “vapid monoculture” in which we all, in one way or another, are condemned to live―our mechanized, technologized, increasingly de-humanized landscapes.
FP: Do you have a particular aversion to urban life? There are a number of occasions in the book when the speaker will seem to complain about cell phone use, or other forms of disconnection between people. Are there any other perils of the city a reader should be looking for?
SB: Yes, exactly the right word: “disconnection.” Continuing from my previous comments, I’m really just updating the cityscape with our very current (no pun intended) plugged-in, wired-in, technologies: our ever-increasingly de-humanized “postmodern” world. Our personal technologies simply alienate us, separate us, further and further. I’d even call that emotional and cultural and intellectual ghettoization. I tried to get “wires” into the frame, so to speak (hah!), right from the book’s title and cover photo, a photo I took out of my downtown Toronto apartment window when I was an undergrad (1971). Streetcar wires then, menacingly hanging down over the streets. Now it’s ear-bud wires, mindlessly hanging down from everyone’s heads. We’re losing our surroundings for all the wires. Robotic, much?
FP: I want to talk about shapes in your poems. First, there are two particular shapes of a box and of wires spilling out of some container, which come up again and again. What is it about those things that made you use them so frequently?
SB: Actually, the first dozen poems were written about a decade ahead of the rest, which were written in one quick flood, in 2013 (published in 2015). In my first five books I was writing largely social satire. In the decades following (I’m just completing my 20th book now), I’d been writing mostly “serial poems” (a phrase introduced by Spicer)―that is, book-length, linked poems, a form I love writing in because it allows me to echo images, cadences, and so on, literally back and forth throughout the long poem format (a deeply embedded echoing, I probably first learned from Pound’s Cantos); and then more recently I’ve been writing “minimalist” forms―which allow for highly condensed, impacted textures, and deliberately ambiguous, multiple meanings in tight passages, short lines and stanzas with lots of ‘loaded’ blank space (like minimalist music). So you can see increasing evidence, after the first dozen poems in this book, of my fuller immersion, by the time of writing the majority of this book, in a “minimalist” poetics.
The “boxes” you’re noticing of course approximate the urban “buildings,” the robotic people themselves, and city “blocks”―we live in alienating boxes, wired-in only to ourselves, like zombies. So, in come the motifs of zombies and leeches, and, finally, even of “Koba” (Stalin). Wired-in, as I say, in a boxed-up, alienated pseudo-existence. We are all becoming slaves to these technologies.
FP: Second, the shape of your poems on the page change shape over the course of the book. They start out with a mid-length line and are around 20 lines or so, but by the end of the book, the poems are frequently much longer with much shorter lines (rarely more than five words a line). What was the cause of this transition? What was the aesthetic motivation?
SB: What you’re noticing―and of course I’m pleased you are!―is my increasing use of minimalism as the book progresses. To illustrate what I tend to do with minimalism (which is, in essence, a massive attempt at intense subtlety), here’s what one reviewer said about my previous, even more extremely minimalist (15th) book: “In Penny-Ante Poems, Stephen Bett… confronts and disrupts the romanticism of modern day love. What remains of the self when myths are suddenly and inexplicably evaporated? In this startling collection, lovers’ dialogue dissolves into hoarse soliloquies. Each poem strips itself to the tender bones, metaphor is brutally denuded, and language is reduced to fraught stammer. Bett unravels the atoms of speech to uncover a new voice [in fragmented syllables breaking down the page] that coalesces desire and loss. Into a new (w)hole, he speaks to his own echoes.”
FP: Why the repetition of “Those Godawful Streets Of Man” in the title of each poem?
SB: Two reasons really. (And by the way, my title is an adaptation of the title of a Warren Tallman collection of essays, itself an adaptation of a phrase from Kerouac.) First, this, like many of my books, is a book-length “serial poem,” so every poem has the overall title embedded in the title of each specific part, or individual poem. Second, given the subject matter, a satire on the blighted urban cityscape, I’m emphasizing the coldly clinical use of street numbers―eg., “Those Godawful Streets of Man (67th St.)”―we find in our North American cities; they are numbered rather than, more humanly, named.
FP: It seems that the speaker of the poems remains consistent throughout the book? Is it the same speaker?
SB: Normally, as a latter day postmodernist, I would, and do, stay right away from “hiding” behind any use of persona at all. Eliot, since I’m already talking about “Prufrock” above, was near the end of the formalist line, using an objectifying (non-subjective) persona. Williams was one of the first modernists to say “let’s stop being phony; when I use the pronoun ‘I’ I mean, literally, me, WCW. Let’s get rid of distancing gimmicks, even including symbolism.” (Organic writing, not static, formalist writing.) Of course, the early modernist avant garde was, in a sense, just returning us to the more personal, subjective, identity poetics of the Romantics (a poetics Eliot abhorred), especially Shelley and Keats. But having said that, in this book, I am indeed distancing my personal self behind the male persona throughout the book―for the simple reason that I wanted to avoid writing overtly cheesy “confessional poetry.” But, yup, I was (am) that guy, in a not-so-fun-romantic situation, writing my way through a real-time excruciating divorce, in fact! (This book is actually the second in divorce trilogy: pain; anger; letting go.)
FP: How do you see this book fitting in with the rest of your publications?
SB: As I say, this book, like pretty well all since my 5th or so book (this one’s my 16th) is both a “serial poem” and somewhat minimalist (although not as much as my others with their very short lines and stanzas). My major influences, one generation ahead of me (I’m a baby-boomer), are fairly minimalist: Creeley, Dorn, Hollo, Clark―in fact right through to my contemporary, Rae Armantrout, a minimalist poet I immensely admire. In my own country I’m seen as a Canadian who “writes like an American.” That’s largely true; my poetic heroes are American postmodernists, at least up to this side of the too-trendy-for-me “language-school” poets.
FP: When your reader has finished this book, closed the cover and set it aside, are there any particular reactions you hope they have, emotional or otherwise?
SB: There perhaps really is nothing much new under the sun (Pope, 18th [century]), but we sure say things in our own voices, coming out of our own times. (The visionary poets, like Blake, of course, very much “ahead of” their times; I’d call Charles Olson our most recent visionary poet, in some senses.) I’m of course by no means a visionary, or even particularly original (in my subject matter), but I hope my readers will see a unique take on the wired-up urban cityscape of our times, told in a compacted, condensed but loaded, and, hopefully, ultra–subtle, minimalist style. Minimalism, and the serial form, are the forms I choose because, to me, they have the potential to create a real frisson, right down the back of the neck. For me, there are a few poets who can make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Because poetry can do that, even if only very occasionally, that’s why I’ve been chasing its tail since I first started writing poetry at age 15, over 50 years ago.
Check out our review of Stephen Bett’s “Those Godawful Streets of Man” here.
Stephen Bett is a widely and internationally published Canadian poet. His earlier work is known for its sassy, edgy, hip… caustic wit―indeed, for the askance look of the serious satirist… skewering what he calls the ‘vapid monoculture’ of our times. His more recent books have been called an incredible accomplishment for their authentic minimalist subtlety. Many are tightly sequenced book-length ‘serial’ poems, which allow for a rich echoing of cadence and image, building a wonderfully subtle, nuanced music. He is recently retired after a 31-year teaching career largely at Langara College in Vancouver, and now lives with his wife Katie in Victoria, BC.