Try Poetry: The Repoetic + Benjamin Dugdale
Marvel in the wordplay ("The nervous Tinder poem thinquiring") of poet Benjamin C. Dugdale's debut collection, a long poem entitled The Repoetic: After Saint-Pol-Roux (Gordon Hill Press). We share an excerpt from the poem as well as an interview with the poet where they share their reading recommendations, the awkward moment that someone decided to air they hated their work (which also, coincidentally, made them feel more like a poet), and more in today's Try Poetry feature.See more details below
An Interview with Poet Benjamin Dugdale
All Lit Up: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry?
Benjamin Dugdale: I don’t know if I have ever wanted to write poetry. Even with the excitement of a forthcoming book, my first “real book” outside my Anstruther chapbook (from 2020, never properly launched, buried in that stifling slab of isolation many of us are still recovering from), I wonder sometimes if “poetry” is a place I am supposed to have fallen into at all.
Poetry seems to have always just “happened” to me, in a “there’s no fiction course this semester, but you need that credit to graduate, take the poetry one” kind of way. Or when I send out a bunch of mixed stuff in a submission and the filler piece, a poem I don’t remember writing, is the one that gets in. It’s just been there, and I’ve had a felicity for it so I’ve stuck with it. I was always a little bitter it came to me easier than fiction, because I was reading fiction (like that of the inimitable Mark Anthony Jarman) that felt freer, but these days the two seem, well, not balanced per se, but inevitably bound and latently informing one another, an elastic at rest versus the same elastic pulled back and about to snap.
Poetry is an arena that anticipates and accepts sound-conscious writing, concrete and other conceptual sensibilities, “experimental writing” more broadly, and almost feverishly chases (usually didactically executed) marginalized experiences in a way that is a little frightening and renders me suspicious of the entire enterprise, though all of that ultimately parlays into my finding a place to share the true spirit of my writing (I call it queer haecceity, lately) with as little modification as necessary; I’ve only recently started finding that welcome-without-modification in my fiction-practice, in the corner designated for sci-fi, writing in the direction of Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, &c.. Maybe not all the sound- and style- forward permissions 1:1, but certainly an analogous berth or latitude.
I can remember two particular moments where I’ve had to reconcile with being a poet, though, kind of after the fact. Whether it was an icky, damning feeling, or a joyous relaxing of the shoulders for the moment.
Firstly, coming back from the Banff Centre, from the spring writing studio, at the airport answering the “business-or-pleasure” q&a, saying proudly I’d been out doing a professional poetry retreat, that I’d spent five weeks hanging out writing! At the beginning of the stay I’d been more ambivalent, embarrassed I’d applied (and been accepted) with a rushed, lanced-wound kind of project I’d been unsure of the merit of. From dinner that first night I got food poisoning, and missed the initial little clique-formations over the next few days. I was very cared for by the staff, and while the faculty and the rest of the participants were all welcoming to me when I eventually emerged, I did feel very alone. But I found my footing, and worked (read and wrote) every single day, no feeling I’d wasted the time I was there. The art-criticism writer group (independent from our studio with some dates overlap) and people from outside of writing retreats altogether befriended me too, and were excited about my writing in a way that felt less like rote talking-shop and more alive and reactive, like I was doing it and doing it on my terms and still connecting with a few folks (in addition to truly so many beautiful talented and welcoming people in our specific studio too). It felt suddenly doable, in the magical way a really good arts residency makes things feel. This had been the summer between third and fourth year of my undergrad, and I returned to school feeling like I had just achieved some self-directed skill that the university wouldn’t have taught me (and earlier, I had assumed was just late coming), that I would never have acquired if I hadn’t snuck away for this unlikely little sojourn.
Secondly, I recently went through a breakup with one of my partners, a recalibration into being BFFs that has been curious and weird but really something I’m so f*cking grateful for overall. My BFF’s one ex-roommate was so excited to tell them, now that my BFF and I weren’t romantically geared, that he hates my poetry ahahahahaha, my poetry that I’d never asked him to read. It was a very surreal and funny thing to hear. And it made me feel like, “well, yeah, a lot of people hit a wall with my poetry, but I’m out here doing it, I’m poet-ing, how’s that manuscript you haven’t shown a soul in seven years treating you?” He’d asked to read something of mine a while ago, and said something about not reading contemporary work, that the ‘furthest ahead’ he’d ever read was modernists, and he concluded I reminded him of, he took a gulp of air in to steel his nerves, Eliot & Pound—truly so far out of my own interest lane and not apropos but also exactly the only way he could’ve understood my work. I already knew he hated my poetry from that first interaction, but that he had to like, confess to it, to a person who still loves me and I still see all the time and still tells me things about their life, it was really enlightening to see just a bit of a passive purpose to my poetry I hadn’t cultivated consciously, that it might unsettle a lot of other poetries (written by poets who much more actively/naturally identify with being poets than I do) that have overstayed their welcome, that need a good scare now and then ahah. Helping other folks define what they think poetry can and can’t be is a useful service, in a way, so I suppose I am a poet just by being around and never quite slotting into a ready-made mold. “Make you a poet of me,” could come from the mouth of Cat-Girl Coriolanus, a speaker I return to time and again in my writing.
ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so?
BD: Playful, unusual, sound-slip mythic-by-way-of-(soda)pop-culture. This piece of poem—really, just one link of the book which is kind of its own whole long-poem—is a bit of a waypost reaching backward and forward to many of the preoccupations throughout the wider book: death and chronic illness and (pre-)mourning, trying to build home from scratch or in the ruins of someone else’s failed or forgotten attempt, sharing the uncomfortable facts about your life that might scare a new love off but doing it anyhow from some irrepressible sense of honor or transparency. This piece of poem is a memory-refresh for the book, a little merchant on the side of the road that can outfit you for the previous & forthcoming sidereal emotional intensity/immensity, helps collate the migration that a long-poem takes you on and re-sounds some of the things from earlier while anticipating things on the way yet to establish a reality anchor, a whelming impression of presentness; it’s one of the more didactic, overt pieces in the book, and I believe it’s essential to have those throughout such a big ask as a long-poem, but that it also does some funny things excerpted on its own. It almost feels like a piece of screenplay, or of fiction?
It was so hard to pick a piece from the poem because the book really is all just one big word-muscle knotted together, but I hope this demonstrates that there are forces at work within the muchness of the poem engineered to aid interfacing/immersion/honest reaction, that there’s a story there to be followed, that there are mythic forces pushing on the poem and new myths off-gassing from its creation, too. There are seeds of thinking through limited translation and french eruption (tied to the genesis of the whole book, a conversation for another time), but also malapropism/eggcorn/play, sweets and delights (several sodas, firepit bricks-come-scorched-Chiclets), childishness, refusal of assumed order or business-as-usual. It’s also a curious piece of writing re:the wider book in that it’s much less internet-referential than much of the book (the initial speaker is a femboy hooters employee). I wonder a lot if I could do the utterly splendid intertextual/internet-poisoned bombardment of a poet like MLA Chernoff, but my strengths lie in the long-poem, specifically the exploded, sonic-sumed durational shearing noise horizon pitch. The queer-atorial sourcing and voice-throwing a genius like Chernoff does feels out of my reach; the world of The Repoetic has internet access, but it doesn’t exist on the internet, not the way Chernoff’s work can travel between those worlds, or like Patricia Lockwood so deftly nailed down in her novel (referenced elsewhere in these replies).
ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?
BD: It’s so tough. If you’re new to poetry, maybe a book gifted to you might be the way in, because you’re going to go in with a bit of trust in the recommendation, you’re going to go in with a good attitude and better appreciate it for that. For example, Hugh Thomas gave me Stuart Ross’ Farmer Gloomy’s New Hybrid years ago, which was a big “oh, we can just do these things? say these things this way?” permission-giver in my own life. Ask A Poet! Most of us would be so flattered to give you a few recommendations. Most of us won’t be offended if it doesn’t pan out.
Sometimes even going into poetry by the fiction written by poets is a great answer, a sort of psychic-onboarding that shifts the privileges around a bit so you know what you’re looking at better when it comes (Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This is a 10/10 gem and is indistinguishable from a tweet/poem at times, Kroestch’s The Studhorse Man, George Bowering’s Caprice is good too, then there’s Mat Laporte’s exquisite RATS NEST, which was originally supposed to be a long poem that just couldn’t abide the genre-line, and bpNichol’s Martyrology books, perhaps even more than his explicit fiction, let one conform their mind and flow to that of another, and hardly recognizes poetry at large).
I don’t know if this would help anyone get into poetry but the collection that made me most alive and alert to the needs of my own writing at that time (and, picking it up again today while writing this, at this time still), was Shannon Maguire’s Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina. It’s ants, but it’s also sort of a sestina. It devours all the lush marrow that severe formalist constraint can offer one but does anything and everything it wants to to pursue its ends of creative myrmecochory, and it’s so lush and queer and joyously and transparently intertextual. It’s one of those books I had like 500 sticky notes in as I read it, because it could be studied if I wanted to, but did not require study from me to feel the harsh, noisy, boundary-blurring buzz of.
The work of recently lost greats like Bernadette Mayers and Charles Simic is also worth mentioning. Mayer is especially pedestrian in a way for beginners, if you can stand Capitalized Letters at the beginning of each line, like in Midwinter Day.
Too, Daniel Tysdal’s Mad Fold-In poems in The End is in the Middle are a real magic trick, and the emotional brunt of the work is enhanced, but never dampened by, that insane formal constraint. They are bite-sized, which is good, as they are so raw and potent, but also means you can pick up the book and put it down and savor it over time. Conversely, truly just read any long-poem you can get your hands on, even one of the several excellent long-poem anthologies that have been put out over the years; seeing what a poem freed from punchline, explosion, or brevity can do will help you discover where your own work feels best, suss out the density or duration or mood you want to achieve.
A single poem, if I had to pick one, would be to hunt down the one recording of Bishop reading “Filling Station,” because the sound is sssssso alive. The poem goes where it goes. It is not metrically or formally indulged to the detriment of sense or flow, it is focused on observing, on feeling and wondering. It’s a witness in the thrall of the scene at hand. But the best part of hearing that recording is that Bishop is sssso unsure. Hearing her laugh at what I’ve always read as the solemn and tendermost moment with esso so so, it’s beautiful. The poem “suffers” a bit from poet-voice, or maybe a touch middle-class-clueless, a sort of impersonal inquiry into the routine of “dirtier” lives. Bishop’s prejudices, as Ray Bradbury implores in his craft talks, strike the page like a lightning bolt. Maybe it could have been “workshopped” into something else.
Hearing Bishop insist “This one will have to be changed, as you see. Somehow, I don’t know how, at the end. But I’ll read it the way it is now,” and then hearing “I’m afraid that’s wasted—” a caesura here with almost hiccuped laughter, finishing her auto-deprecation “—now,” it’s kinda heart-breaking. It demonstrates a poem need not be perfect, play into any number of hands or be written to committee, need not exist at a remove or with intense contextual preface, that a poem can have a moment of intentional laughter amidst its cooler observations (“Somebody waters the plant, / or oils it, maybe”). Hearing the poem aloud reveals a lot about the context of making or reading a poem, and a lot about how some poems really unfold when aloud; reading poetry out loud feels embarrassing sometimes, but it bridges so many unintentional gaps when you can do it.
The place where bird on fire lays les œufs du futur
somewhere in the knock-o# [Pr/D]ada clutch, the inheritor Poet blare-apparent"
That brain-tumour what made a puppet of my mother on about:
With yer sisters I never had heartburn, and they were born without eyebrows
But you, you hairy baby, all heartburn all day
Could barely keep my Coca-Cola down
Now most of that brain-tumour in whatever stands in for a firepit in a hospital
Not just us hicks burning our garbage, the doctors that do all the
Dew’ing it too
That tumor and its cousins, many unclaimed medi-mementos now furnace-
flung ash at the
unfurnished open-house of the sky that’s just waiting to be blotted out
by a Repoetician
The oracular Gecko fused to the broiling inner-Chiclets-brick, fuelled by
manuscripts for the stubborn mother who simply can’t. be. killed.
A relief of on two front teef, the shadow of a cold-blooded peeping vertebrate
The nervous Tinder-Poem thinquiring
“does your English always fight like this, or just at the holidays?”
Excerpted from The Repoetic: After Saint-Pol-Roux by Benjamin Dugdale, copyright © 2023 by Benjamin Dugdale. Reprinted with the permission of Gordon Hill Press.
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Benjamin C. Dugdale (they/them) is a writer, game master, rugmaker & experimental filmmaker from Rural Alberta (Treaty 7 Territory). B’s writing has been published and is forthcoming in venues such as GEIST, fillingStation, plenitude, giallo, FreeFall, A*N*U*S, ex-puritan, The Minute Review, &c.. B's most recent film, Contents Under Pressure, is distributed by the CFMDC. B has been a reader for PANK, + ARC Poetry Magazine. B also publishes as bonny CD. Their updates can be found at benjamindugdale.ca. Their chapbook, Saint Rat O'Sphere's Formica Canticle Poems, was published in 2020 by Anstruther Press, and their full-length debut—a book-length-poem—The Repoetic: After Saint-Pol-Roux, is available from Gordon Hill Press Spring 2023.
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Thanks to Benjamin Dugdale for generously answering our questionnaire and sharing part of their long poem The Repoetic with us for Try Poetry (Why Not?).
Remember, if you purchase a copy of The Repoetic or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you'll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to email@example.com if you purchase from your local!)
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