Types of Restlessness: An Interview with Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman by Chris Tonelli

Chris Tonelli: So the readers know, we met at a Black Mountain College (BMC) tribute reading/event type thing for the Hopscotch Music Festival here in Raleigh, NC. With as many as 19 members and countless side projects, what do you imagine are some of the similarities between the collective that is Broken Social Scene (BSS) and BMC? What is it that attracts you to these sorts of communities?

Andrew Whiteman: Um well, I guess I don’t see much the same between BSS and BMC. If I searched for it, I’d say the ‘innocent’ style beginnings of both projects? Given the relative obscure location of BMC and well, BSS really was a basement-only band for quite a while. Beyond that, BSS is just a band. We are friends, family more like it at this point in our career, and we play everywhere because people want us to, and we want to keep making music and touring is the only way to support the expenses we have. The way I see it, BMC was an inter-disciplinary cauldron where people could come who were really searching for a modern path to take their creativity. I mean really: Cage, Cunningham, Olson, Dorn, Creeley, R. Johnson, Ruth Asawa, I won’t bother to name [all] these, er, titans of modern art.  BSS is just a band. We bring happiness.

I’m lucky enough to have just fallen into what became the family of BSS and Stars, Metric, etc. It was the early days and the musical chemistry was out of sight.

CT: I guess since people often refer to BSS as a collective, and on any given project there are various numbers of members and collaborators and cameos and since people have other projects going on as well, that there might be a similar atmosphere. Of support, of challenge, of variety, etc.

What inspired you to organize a BMC tribute at the Hopscotch festival? Was it simply being in NC? Have you organized other poetry events while touring with BSS?

AW: Grayson reached out to me once he had BSS locked in for the festival. He was wondering if Apostle of Hustle could do a late-night set that same night. I knew my head would be too deep into the BSS world, plus our drummer, Dean, wouldn’t be there, so I went back with the idea of organizing a poetry reading. My vision was kind of that it would be in a tiny bar or weirdly, someone’s hotel room because there’d only be probably 10 or 12 people that’d be into a poetry reading. We’d decide beforehand what poem to read and then everyone would have a copy of the work, sort of know it, I suppose, and then at around midnight the reading would start. Basically a drinking game with some fantastic American poetry: The Cantos of Pound, The Sonnets of Berrigan, di Prima’s revolutionary letters. Whatever poem was decided. After half a second I realized that yes, we were in NC and therefore it was only proper to choose a poet from BMC.  Later on, Grayson decided to kind of add this idea into his ‘artists and authors’ series he already had going. The event was a cool experience for me because well you introduced me to Jonathan Williams’ world, plus the other Chris had been a student of Ed Dorn’s, whose Gunslinger is absolutely the greatest American long poem of the last 75 years. Still, I believe that poetry is almost like a faith these days – and so what’s needed sometimes is a more causal and emotional and cabal-type setting for an exchange of it.

Which brings up your second question: Have I organized other poetry events while on tour?   Sadly, no. Being on the road is the epitome of non-organization as when you show up to a town to play in, you usually have no idea where the venue is, what time the bus leaves after the gig, how to get around, or if you even need to. Hmmm it sounds like I’m making excuses. To be honest, it’s never dawned on me that with a fair amount of pre-production, poetry events could be organized ahead of time, at least in some places. In my touring of the last year, I have made a few connections: my friend Tom King in Lawrence, Kansas is the custodian of Bill Burroughs’ house, and I met him solely thru walking to where it was after sound check. I wanted to take a picture of it and ended up hanging out later after the show with him and James Grauerholz and couple of other local poets. Meeting Ann Waldman has been the high point of my year. In Philadelphia, I had an afternoon off, so I walked to the Kelly Writer’s House, met Al Filreis and all the good people there.  I was on a mission to secure a Penn Sound page for my friend, the poet Victor Coleman – who is, I believe, Canada’s best poet of the last 40 years. Al didn’t need me to convince him – now you can hear some of Victor’s poetry by scooting over to Penn Sound.

You’re right, Chris…it would make touring life a lot more exciting if I knew there were poets to meet and hang out with a few times a week. Usually, I see on Silliman’s blog that, Nope, I just missed Linh Dinh with CAConrad by two days in Philly or nope the DA Levy tribute is next week. Ann certainly never stops moving, and it kills me to lose out on her performances. It’s as bad as missing Marc Ribot or Tom Waits or Lucky Dragons or something. I played European Festivals all summer and never saw Wildbirds and Peacedrums!!!! Arggg!!

CT: Well, I’m glad you came back to Grayson with that revision. I’d never heard Dorn’s work before to be honest, so thank you for that. Along with Dorn, you mention a handful of poets…Pound, Berrigan, di Prima, Burroughs, Waldman…Grauerholz, Dinh, Conrad, Filreis…Coleman. Is there an aesthetic thread you see running through their work that links them in your own personal canon? If so, is there a parallel thread for you in music? I guess what I’m asking is, for you, does the aesthetic transfer mediums?

AW: Good question given that I just finished unpacking my boxes of books in my new apartment and felt the weird ‘challenge’ of what goes where and how to organize them all. I ended up not organizing the poetry in and of itself. It went poetry/drama/performance/ myth & ritual/spirituality/philosophy (special sections went to Ezra Pound and then again to William Burroughs, Beckett, Nicky Drumbolis, and Jodorowsky).

I’m interested in poetry of the ‘other tradition,’ as spoken about by Jerome Rothenberg or Marjorie Perloff or blogged by Al Filreis or Lemon Hound. It’s not simply contemporary work. It’s a way of reading poetry through types of restlessness of being in the world. It could be Pound translating “The Seafarer” or it could be Linh Dinh’s photo blog; the poet is engaging with the ‘soul of the world’ which he or she finds to be fucked up in some way or another. The stance of being against the zeitgeist. Saying that, I definitely am not a fan of all types of ‘rebellious’ / ‘disruptive’ poetry, whether abstruse or ‘slam’, just because it speaks out. Nor do I dislike the haiku of Basho or the ‘everydayness’ of Berrigan and the New Yorkers.  I suppose the way I read these writers is that their voices are implicitly rejecting of what society-at-large was pimping at the time. I feel like the times are hurtful, solipsistic to a new level and cruel and ignorant to staggering degrees. Poetry is a way to make vision clear. What’s my fucked up version of Shelley? “Poets are the true legislators of the unacknowledged world.” There is so much work to be read, it’s too much. Many paths.

Musically speaking, I’m a pure crow. I fly around and when I hear something that looks like it’d be good, I swoop down and steal it. So I see my tastes as much more polyglot. Plus, a lot of the music I listen to isn’t English-language, so I have very little idea what they’re singing about. I would definitely like to say while I’ve got a chance: LYRICS≠POETRY and vice versa!!! I can’t stand the ‘rock poet’ tag even when applied to such brilliant musicians as Stephen Malkmus, Dan Bejar, mf DOOM, Bill Callahan, or Dylan. Two different beasts. Of course, the connection is deep and essential – it’s the musicality of poetry that is probably the first hook for me when I’m reading, certainly before much of the ‘meaning’ seeps in. But to name rock lyricists as poets, is, I think, giving them a little too much credit. It somehow de-centralizes the power of the melody and sound that is integral with lyrics. Hmmm…does that make me more of a poet snob or musician snob?

If there’s any ‘style’ that runs through my musical taste, it’s probably ‘rough edged’ – Moroccan Gnawa or American Folk or whatever. Then again, I’m a sucker for Burt Bacharach too. There’s no accounting for taste.

CT: Glad to see someone else has mfDOOM and Pavement in their playlist. What if Danger Mouse and DOOM got together and worked on some Burt Bacharach?

How do you see this interest in the “other tradition” manifesting itself in your work with BSS? I guess as a band and also as an individual player working within a band? Do you feel like a ‘restlessness’ is being expressed? How would you say your music is ‘rejecting what the world is pimping?’ I guess I mean both the world at large and the music world.

AW: I’m afraid I can’t map BSS onto my ideas of a more radical, less cautious, ‘other tradition’ in poetry. What music(ians) would we put there? Ornette Coleman? Sonic Youth? PJ Harvey? Wildbirds and Peacedrums? Genesis P. Orridge? Noise bands? Scandinavian death metal? Hmmm…I dunno. Maybe a band like Dirty Projectors and their friend, Tune-Yards.

I think of BSS as a band that is working alongside many THOUSANDS of other bands and that we cross-pollinate all the time. We are at a point culturally where in pop (ie Pitchfork or most music blogs), ironic attitudes, post irony and the game of cool have eliminated the borders between genre to such a degree where anything can [be] tabled and accepted no matter where on the scale of recognizable they occur: from ‘oh my mom used to like this’ to ‘ whoa what is that.’ I doubt any musician fills in their ‘genre’ slot on their MySpace page without being ironic: traditional/ soukous [EDITOR’S NOTE: According to Andrew, ‘soukous’ is “a damn trendy ironic (and for some bands Not Ironic ) demarker”]/ metal. Anything can seem fresh. These days viewpoints telescope so that micro-niches are the topics of discussion and division. Perhaps we might say this is the restlessness I mentioned earlier, but in terms of music. The ‘Kill your Idols’ mentality. BSS doesn’t really set out to be radical. We are primarily an emotion band, with attention to melody. I also don’t see BSS as a ‘rejecting the con’ band per se, but there are definitely lyrical moments where that stance is taken strongly. And our presentation is somewhat oblique, in that the audience often enjoys our ‘what the fuck is going to happen next’ stage show.

But the world of pop and taste moves at a much faster speed then that of poetry. You click a couple of times and boom, you’ve heard the new National album. You listened through your laptop speakers and made some judgment calls. Barely anyone reads books these days, let alone poetry. The functions of tradition and anti-tradition mean something else in the slower, page-bound, time-frame. To extract poems, you have to read and think and feel and re-read. Very generally, I’ll agree with McLuhan – somehow working within writing in and of itself seems more radical than rocking out, at least in my world view.

CT: Poets love to hear that they’re more radical than rock stars.

The day we read for the BMC tribute thing, you read only Dorn’s work. But I remember you saying, or someone saying about you, that you are working on a manuscript. Can you talk about that a bit. What does it look like…is it a long piece or individual poems? Are the lines broken or is it in prose? Would you say you have more of a contrarian aesthetic as a poet than a musician, thinking back about what you said about pop music?

AW: Yeah, I am slowly working on a manuscript for a book of poems. It’ll be called ‘Tourisms.’  It is a series of ‘documentary’ poetics about a year on the road with BSS. I see it as a long poem but with many different types of poems within it…….write about what you know, right? But there’s another structural dimension as well – many if not all the poems will be imitations, to greater or lesser degrees, of other poets’ work. For example, BSS played on the Letterman show earlier this year. After that we went to Sears studio, a famous old joint in NYC, to record a song for the second Sea Shanties record that Hal Wilner is producing. Things got weird that night, and I ended up meeting Anne Waldman. Gush gush!!! So perhaps I’ll borrow the style of “fast speaking woman” or “makeup on empty space” or one of her list poems to record that entire event. Maybe get into some more ideas on what it’s like to perform on one of those ridiculous TV shows.

Another example is one poem I’ve already completed. It’s based on the first canto from Pound. In that canto he tells the story of when Odysseus has to go to hell and sacrifice oxen for Tiresias the poet to drink and then tell Odysseus what/how he will get back to Ithaca and Penelope. I changed the story to be of when BSS flew to Minehead, UK to play in the Pavement-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. So, one is a grand narrative epic & the other is a typical banal rock show – but told using as much of the AMAZING VOWEL-LEADING that Pound, of course, was a master of. I hope that will get completed within next year. Memories die so quickly.

As for my aesthetic/poetics…I know where my taste runs, and hopefully I’ll end up being a poet of the anti-tradition tradition that I spoke of earlier. I certainly am not New Yorker bound, that’s for sure.

CT: I really like the idea of a long poem of imitations…any chance we could get a sample poem from the manuscript? Maybe that Pound/Pavement one?

AW: Here’s a chunk, in media res, of the poem entitled “Kanto”. [It] is just a small part of the longer work in progress….both in the specific poem (‘Kanto’) and as a book length long poem (Tourism(S)).

I’m looking forward to the fear of the blank page vs. the fear of the empty tequila bottle in the new year, although BSS will still be playing a fair number of shows.

Andrew Whiteman is a musician (Broken Social Scene & Apostle of Hustle) and poet/reader from Montreal, Canada. He says “If there’s anything I’d want to add to the interview it would be an exhortation for any poets that read it and are interested in similar poets/poetic concerns as me to PLEASE GET IN TOUCH!! Community is often so difficult to build or maintain and I’m really searching for some kindred ‘outriders’ to help push poetry’s platform along and preserve the lessons of our ancestors. I’m interested especially in the collaborative spirit of the New York School, past & present, and also especially in Alice Notley’s practice.”

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Chris Tonelli is one of the founding editors of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press. He also founded and curates the So and So Series and edits the So and So Magazine. He is the author of four chapbooks, most recently No Theater (Brave Men Press) and For People Who Like Gravity and Other People (Rope-A-Dope Press), and his first full-length collection, The Trees Around, came out in April. New work can be found in upcoming issues of The Laurel Review and Fou. He teaches at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he lives with his wife Allison and their son Miles.

Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.  Check out previous POP essays here.