Gabe Foreman was born in Thunder Bay. He has worked as a tree planter in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. He’s a co-founder of littlefishcartpress, and his writing has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Grain, The Fiddlehead and Event. His first book, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People, was published in 2011 by Coach House Books. Currently he lives in Montreal where he works at a soup kitchen.
Gabe Foreman was interviewed by Carmelo Militano in June, 2011.
The first and perhaps most obvious comment I have to make after reading your collection is how the ludic impulse — either in the form of visual puns, word play, or poems that move line by line into absurdity — shapes your poetry both in tone and content. An example of what I am talking about are the poems ‘Grown-ups’ and ‘Animal Lovers’. Now my question — is your poetry attempting to probe the mystery of people, animals, nature, and things in general in a whimsical, playful, and almost absurd way (as opposed to a high minded way) or are you having a good time playing with people’s expectations of what a poem can mean or not mean?
It’s true, I’m obsessed with absurdity, but I don’t really think of absurdity as an opposite to high mindedness. At the risk of sounding corny, it seems like there’s a healthy dose of the absurd inside a lot of what people say and do, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. I like to think that our dearest beliefs could be groundless. Our struggles, absurd. This is a very serious idea to me, one that can be pretty liberating.
I think that veering into the absurd was a way for me to keep my high-minded, probing side in check. I’m a pretty sincere person at heart, but sincerity in poetry can lose force if it goes on too long. Same with absurdity. With many of the poems, I tried to parachute into the grey area between a joke and something serious.
Another quality about your poems is what I would call intimate surrealism both in tone and how they progress towards a startling closed or open ending. Your tone and subject matter may be intimate but your lines crack open unexpected and sometimes unfamiliar psychological insights. For example, the poem ‘Perverts’ or the prose poem ‘House-Sitters.’ Is the strange playfulness and the digressions accidental or is your poetic instinct and aesthetic a reworking of Pound’s modernistic dictum “make it new?” Is your effective use of surrealism another way of making the ordinary extraordinary while keeping your tongue firmly planted in your cheek? Do you worry about your poems being misunderstood?
As a reader, surrealism doesn’t appeal to me when it’s just randomness. I want to get drawn in, in a pretty traditional sense, before things get refracted, before the logic we are used to falls apart. I tried to make the separate pieces in the encyclopedia, even the more digressive or dispersive ones, contain bits of real experience, kernels of truth, so that they would have some kind of emotional substance.
A few years ago, I watched No Country for Old Men in a movie theatre and after it was over, the man beside me stood up and announced, ‘Well, that was a waste of time.’ He really seemed to be saying this (spoiler alert) because the killer gets away in the end. I just sat there. Why do we need to ‘get’ everything? I’m not worried about my poetry being misunderstood. I’m worried about that guy.
Or at least, I’m worried about what I assumed that he had meant. Maybe he just hated the movie.
Your comic impulse also has the great ability of transforming poetic forms whether they be traditional or experimental and making me, at least, smile with pleasure. I also like your puns. Can you comment on or explain what draws you towards your use of the absurd and what you see as the consequences of your comic / subversive vision for poetry in Canada. How do you know your poem is doing what you want it to do?
I think a lot of the comic stuff in this project stems from the title, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People. There is something insane about trying to divide humanity into a few dozen ‘types’. I was aware of how bad this idea was from the start. I felt obliged to undermine the book’s mission now and then. Specifically, some of the entries are probably unhelpful when it comes to actually classifying people.
The subversive elements within the Encyclopedia are directed more towards this idea of categorizing people, and less towards the poetry world.
I don’t know if the entries do what I want them to. Who knows? They probably don’t. I like poetry that might be accessible to people who don’t generally read poetry. I probably didn’t hit that nail too squarely. Maybe what I think is funny is just morose or perverse. Hopefully my mom likes it.
A few years ago K.I. Press published a collection of poetry called ‘Types of Canadian Women, Volume Two’ and it too had many comic (but ironic) poems and of course the title of her collection also suggests an attempt at creating an anthology about people. What is it about types (or the attempt to write about types) that is appealing or at least an organizing principle for you as a poet?
For me, the idea of writing about types really started with the structural possibilities of the encyclopedia itself. A lot of my writing already seemed to be about humanoids, so the decision to make a collection of poetry into an encyclopedia about types of people seemed pretty natural. All I had to do was name the poems after types of people and arrange them alphabetically. As things got going, however, it seemed prudent to explore the structural machinery of the encyclopedia. For example, as a book of reference, it should encourage browsing (as opposed to linear reading) with cross references alluding to distant entries. The pages shouldn’t all look the same. There should be different kinds of entries for different types of people… Although it began as a loose structural conceit, the format of the encyclopedia grew to become something resembling a poetic constraint. It was a load of fun.
I’m a big fan of ‘Types of Canadian Women, Volume Two.’
What kind of poet would you call yourself? And please don’t simply say a good one. I mean is their a tradition you see yourself writing in or against. In other words, where do you place yourself in relation to the past and present in terms of your writing?
I don’t know. I’m a regular everyday poet. I enjoy poetry from different eras, and I’m sure it influences me in many ways. But I’m sure everybody feels that way. I guess I disagree with the notion that good poetry ought to be lofty, that it cannot also be funny. (I don’t know if anybody actually believes that.) Jokes share a certain economy and verbal finesse with poetry. They deserve to be taken seriously.