Rob Winger grew up in a tiny Ontario town, and has since lived in eastern Canada and Asia. His work has been published in literary journals across Canada. Currently at work on a doctoral degree in English and Cultural studies, Winger lives with his family in Ottawa. Selections from Muybridge’s Horse, his first book of poems, won first prize for English Poetry in the 2003 CBC Literary awards. Nightwood Editions published the book in the summer of 2007.
Alex Boyd interviewed Rob Winger in August 2007.
Ten years ago we worked together at Chapters, and here we are in 2007, both of us with first books published this year. Aside from feeling I’m getting on a bit, I remember a poem of yours where you talk about carrying around The Collected Works of Billy the Kid on your back as though “an extra muscle”; did it help inspire this collection about another historical figure?
Yes, I remember that old poem, too. And, yeah, you’re right: Ondaatje’s early work made a big impression on me back when I was a wide-eyed, and under-read undergraduate student. I’d never heard of an author re-shuffling or re-inventing history, and had never read a contemporary longpoem before. I’d also never seen an author approach historiography or history as though it were a formal limit out of and against which to write. That limitation, it seems to me, when used productively, can make some magical things happen — it certainly does in Ondaatje’s writing. I’ve recently re-read Billy the Kid, as well as Slaughter, and I still find them to be fresh, compelling, and rich. If you look closely in my book on Muybridge, in fact, there’s actually a few direct references to Ondaatje’s work in my own poems … I’ll leave it to you to find out just where!
Can you expand on what you mean by a limit? I wonder if you mean as faithful a recreation of the era as possible, along with a re-imagining of the life, or at least some of those details.
No, actually. The idea of re-creating a historical period is what I see as the formal limitation of writing inside of some defined historical setting, not the goal. So, what “actually” happened way back when is more of a kind of formal restriction than a final goal. I think of it as analogous to some kind of poetic meter, so that certain lines can only be certain lengths, have certain endings, just as certain historical plots can only occur in certain locales, or can only achieve certain, recorded, historical endings. The choice to manipulate a historical situation — as I do, say, by moving the episode when Eadweard first photographs horses six years into the future — or to embellish it — as I do by basing a character like Coppinger on hearsay, or one like Harry or Flora on just a few brief newspaper articles filled with gossip — are both ways to work within the limit of public history. So, being “faithful” to an era, for me, is less interesting as some exercise in verisimilitude than as a way to access and understand the whole undertaking of writing about history at all, of trying to mask an invented story as an actual one, and trying to sort out what the difference really is between saying something actually happened and admitting that you just made it up.
What else inspired Muybridge’s Horse?
Part of the inspiration should certainly be traced to another class, where my photography professor, Thaddeus Holownia, routinely showed his students a litany of twentieth century photographers to give us a sense of artistic history and technological possibility. One of Eadweard’s horse sequences was in the slide reel, and something clicked for me. I spent the next 5 or 6 years thinking through what that was before I actually started the Muybridge project (and another 5 years writing and revising). So, Thaddeus probably provided the earliest seed in the poem’s genealogy.
It appears you did a fair amount of research; what fascinated you about Muybridge?
That’s a tough one to nail down with any kind of finality. But, for one, I think there’s something puzzling about his locomotion images in that a lot of the sequences, when you look closely, seem pretty implicitly violent, motivated not only by that nineteenth century fascination with rapid technological innovation, but also by this naturalizing of ecological and zoological history that went along with colonization and all that. Anyone who reads a bit of travel writing from the century preceding Muybridge’s motion studies, for example, will find all these accounts of natural history, charting exotic species, geographies, fauna, all in European terms. So, there was this kind of momentum to categorize all natural things into some sort of logical science. Part of what’s happening in Eadweard’s animal studies is informed by this. When I started to dig deeper into his life, of course, the famous affair that’s at the heart of the book’s plot came to light — and that made me want to find out a lot more about what made Eadweard tick, to maybe understand how this kind of urge to categorize might have been there in his personal life as well as his professional one. But, when I started to read about the context of most of his photographic career — charting and recording uncharted coasts and landscapes, creating new chemistry on his plates, being involved in cinema — what really seemed important was a striking connection between Muybridge’s time and our own. In both periods, scientific progress is upheld as almost pious, and ethical actions are ignored in favour of political expansion, economy, agendas, whatever, all explained in scientific terms. In the process of piecing together this connection, I also realized that I don’t think I really like Eadweard that much, and maybe because of this, he remains, for me, always distant and unknowable. So that problem became very compelling — how could I write the biography of a historical figure without feeling as if I knew the figure intimately, without reducing his complexity into simple categories? This problem informs a lot of what the book eventually became.
The book is full of sharp, concise images, and hints at the moments between life, the instants between things happening. A line reads “I entered his photos as though stepping into maps.” Did you know right away his life and work would be a good fit for your poetry?
Well, I’m not sure that I had a clear idea what “my poetry” really was when I started the project. And, the way I wrote his life out at first, of course, didn’t fit with what I was trying to think about. My own approaches had to change so that I could record the process of recording in addition to just writing the guy’s life story. So, in this way, the writing was in process and in progress right up to the final set of proofs, when I was still trying to make changes and re-shape the poems. I DO hope that the book gives you that sense of being in-between, especially since the idea of the quick shutter speed, of being able to freeze time in a way never before viewed, continues, for me, to be a very interesting moment of in-betweeness, just as its opposite — sticking together the frozen moments so convincingly that still images start to look like dynamic ones — continues to be interesting to me.
Even to say “advances” in technology is a biased way to put it, but Muybridge is well known for certain accomplishments. What do you think technology does to our changing perceptions?
This is a lot of what the book tries to address, I hope. Part of what I think it does is create an illusion that the present moment is more complex, more complicated, more advanced, and more progressive than any other previous era in history, a view that is so non-relative and arrogant that it tends to dismiss historical periods as somehow primitive and therefore not as tough or central as our own time. This is a real problem, it seems to me, because it makes people forget historical precedence, and allows for a view of ourselves that is fundamentally arrogant, like a teenager insulting his/her grandparent because they don’t know how to use an iPod, without considering that these folks might have grown up without any of the technologies they’re used to, when war and segregation and violent misogyny were as big if not bigger problems than they are now. I suppose what I’m saying is that our own age has most of the same problems as every other age had; the idea that our perceptions are “changing” all the time, then, seems like a marketing ploy to sell ourselves a new, improved version of how things are. Have you ever heard that Tom Waits tune “Step Right Up”, where he advertises a product that will solve all of your metaphysical and personal troubles, no matter how big or small? Some of that attitude is what our obsession with technology does to our understanding of history, I think.
So if you didn’t actually like Muybridge, did you carry on with studying him because he was an early example of life becoming more fragmented, and self-reflexive?
I’m not sure that he was an example of things becoming fragmented so much as he provided some proof that things have always kind of been that way, except for a few momentary historical periods of calm. It seems to me that critics in every era talk about unprecedented, new-and-improved breakthroughs, or predict that the end is near, or argue we’ve never been so alienated, that the old codes just don’t work anymore in the new modern world, blah blah blah. So while it’s true, I guess, that Muybridge did achieve certain things that others didn’t — especially with his super-fast shutter speeds — the whole tendency towards locating an exact origin for current historical dilemmas seems a bit too simple to me.
I should say, too, that our current of historical fragmentation isn’t a new idea, either, and it’s certainly not just mine! Folks have been writing about this problem for quite a while, I think. So, if you take something like Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue as an example of how personal history can be constructed, the debunking of myths of origin becomes central to how a lot of Canadian writers talk about history or biography or autobiography or whatever.
What’s your perception of Canadian poetry, is there anything unique about it, anything that drives you mad?
There’s a lot of both! A lot of the best and worst poetry I’ve read over the years has been written by Canadians, and I don’t think I’d really have any understanding of what’s happened in literature over the last half century or so if it weren’t for writers like bpNichol, Ondaatje, Bowering, Marlatt, Phyllis Webb, John Thompson, Souster, Al Purdy, Kroetsch, Anne Carson, Dionne Brand and a whole whack of others. I read a lot of these folks before I ever approached the magical work of somebody like William Carlos Williams, for example, and had access to modernism first through folks like FR Scott. At the same time, though, there’s a lot of tired old clichés out there still making the rounds — and this is an old, entrenched habit in CanLit — all those tendencies towards maple-leaf lyricism and the like. … If I read another poem about Icarus falling into a metaphorical sea of maple leaves I think I’ll throw up …
What helps you write poetry? Why write poetry? Am I bugging you?
Yes, you are, but I’m used to it — I’ve known you for a long time, now. As I bet you’ve guessed, I don’t really know the answer to these questions beyond clean space and time. And it is true that I get rather grumpy if I haven’t written for a while. Why do you write it, do you think?
All I can really say is I get grumpy too, if I go without writing a poem I’m happy with, and start to feel like I’m drifting, without having caught and solidified anything. And like I’m, well, useless. What’s next for you, can we look forward to another collection of poems?
I’m working on a few very different projects, and do have a manuscript I’m shopping around. It’s very very different from the Muybridge poems, and tries to take on the idea of the poetic miscellany, to deal with the clichéd topics often invoked and mangled in poetry collections that still remain pressing and important topics, I think. No more guncotton, ether, or trotting mares for me!