Interview with Language Poet bill bissett

[Find out more about the column, “the Politics of Art”, by Safia Southey]

Because of bissett’s creative method of writing, I wrote a sort of translation to facilitate the understanding of his answers. However, this is only my interpretation and such as in any interpretation, some form of meaning may be lost.

Canadian poet bill bissett was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and started publishing in the 1960s. The author of more than 60 books of poetry, he is also a painter and musician. bissett dispenses with standard written English (initial capitals, spelling, and punctuation), connecting with language on an elemental level that some reviewers have considered shaman-like. Jamie Reid, in a review titled “one man civilization; a review of bill bissett over time,” remarked of his work: “[T]here is a glorious sense of incompletion, of form unfinished, unadorned … even in the midst of a varied and repeated, but always expanding repertoire of artistice and audience-pleasing gestures and techniques, for one of bissett’s aims has surely been to create an atmosphere of ecstasy and delight.” His awards include the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award and the BC Book Prizes Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.

Your art moves between a thrilling range of different genres (painting, poetry, performance). How do you choose what mode you are working in? How do they differ from each other, how do they intersect?

th work at hand chooses its own genre
or intrseksyuns or fuseyuns uv genre
iuv alwayze wantid n am wanting 2 moov
btween narrativ non narrativ sound vizual
metaphysical politikul spiritual song med
itativn fuseyun
prhaps no genre is totalee on its own
without influens or leeking in from othr
approaches
i dont sew much decide on wch assortment
uv in each work painting or pome as much
as th work itself duz n my role is 2 follow th
urgings th impules th call uv th work itself

The work at hand chooses its own genre or intersections or fusions of genre. I’ve always wanted, and am wanting, to move between narrative and non-narrative, sound, visual, metaphysical, political, spiritual, song, meditation, fusion, etc. Perhaps no genre is totally on its own without influence or leaking in from other approaches. I don’t so much decide on which form of work, paint or poem, as much as the work itself does and my role is to follow the urgings, the impuses, the call of the work itself.

What are some of the main foci (political, aesthetic….) of your work? Has it changed in the past few years? Does it differ when working in different platforms?

i gess evreething is politikul or nothing is
how we arrange our societeez is how we
dew that n poetree can take a hand in that
with choices n how thr can b less homeless
peopul n a mor egalitarian sharing btween peopuls n sew can painting also lyrik n all th othr approaches love romantik sexual all thees
realms we moov thru in our lives finding what
works 4 us n what dusint sew much as currentlee we ar all finding that xtreem
oligarkeez n diktatorships dew not work
art n poetree uv all approaches can b a
proteksyun against tyranee in wch peopuls
rites ar eroding n thos can b erodid fastr
thn it tuk 2 get them ther

I guess everything is political or nothing is; how we arrange our societies is how we do that and poetry can have a hand in how there can be less homeless people and a more egalitarian sharing between people. Also impactful in this is painting and lyrics and all the other approaches, love, romantic sexual, all these realms we move through in our lives fiding what worked for us and what doesn’t so much, as currently we are all finding that extreme oligarchies and dictatorships do not work. Art and poetry of all approaches can be a protection against tyranny in which people’s rights are eroding, and those can be eroded faster than it took to get them there.

Acoustic space (sound) plays a major role in your work. How and in what ways do you think spoken word or more specifically, the performance of poetry, is influential?

sound poetree 4 me is whn wun uv th huge
elements uv th work bcums predominant
politikul poetree is whn wun uv th huge
elements uv poetree how we connekt with
each othr bcums predominant or th focus
th foci n th lens alwayze shifting alwayze
fluid n not restriktiv

Sound poetry for me is when one of the huge elements of the work becomes predominant. Political poetry is when one of the huge elements of poetry, how we connect with each other, becomes predominant or the focus, the foci and the lens always shifting, always fluid, and not restrictive.

In this current political climate, do you think that subverting traditional linguistic structures helps the overall mission of speaking truth to power, and challenging unsavory aspects of the establishment?

speeking truth 2 powr i love that idea n
that conveys 4 me th rolling aesthetik uv
poetree n painting n all th varients n sum
art speeks unspeeking thru unpowring sew
thr is room 4 also art 4 its own sake with
out referensing prspektiv background or
4grounding tho all that may happn but not
needing 2 tho also needing but a way out
uv meening as well as
that realm is also wundrful n is part uv
breething th tendr air

thees ideas strangelee iuv alwayze had workd
from th image pickshur in th lettr th lettr in
th image th pickshur representing or not
representing not alwayze representing as
yu can find in th caves is it lascaux images
both representing n abstrakt

Speaking truth to power, I love that idea, and that conveys for me the rolling aesthetic of poetry and painting and all the variants. Some art speaks unspeaking, so there is room for art for its own sake without referencing prospective background or foregrounding, though all that may happen but not needing to, however also a way out of meaning and of that realm is also wonderful and is part of breathing the tender air. I have always worked from the image, the picture in the letter, the letter in the image, the picture representing or not representative, not always representing as you can find in the caves is it lascaux images both representing and abstract.

Do you believe that there is ever an instance that art is apolitical, existing for its own sake?

art 4 its own sake as mgm in th goldn dayze
uv hollywood as louis b mayer wud say he
akshulee from nu brunswick canada his
familee having escapd from pogroms in
russya n creatid brillyant works uv art 4
manee yeers th asphalt jungul th bad n th
beautiful amerikan in paris singin in th
rain a prevailing storee line un manee uv
thees works was th idea uv continuing
monogamee n a stedee gig thees wer
oftn 4frontid but not reelee th main emphasis
but veree present sew oftn thers a view in
th storee line wch societee adds on or transcends or complements or dusint
need as de rigeur if ther is enuff equalitee
wch i think is th comment or th aim in a
lot uv great works ium a both and kind uv
prson not sew much an eithr or
n all thees ideas keats ode 2 a grecian urn th
thing uv beautee is all we need 2 know or
in th play ium in challenging th sea by helen
posno “each tragedy must strip me uv th
truths iud held befor i dance with life thru
hardship n i dance with love thru loss…”
its a ship wreck n we ar all in2 ideas beleefs
n feeling uv hopelessness n trying 2 rev up
sum feelings uv hopefulness sew we can
surviv ths terribul drangement

Art for its own sake as MGM (Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) studios in the golden days of Hollywood as Louis B Mayer would say (he actually is from New Brunswick, Canada, his family having escaped from pogroms in Russia and created brilliant works of art for many years), with films such as the Asphalt Jungle, The Bad and the Beautiful, American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, etc. A prevailing story line in many of these works was the idea of continuing monogamy and a steady gig; these were often in the forefront but so often there is a view in the story line which society adds on or transcends or complements or doesn’t need as de rigueur, if there is enough equality which I think is the comment or the aim in a lot of great works. I am a both/and kind of person not so much an either/or, and all these ideas, Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, “the thing of beauty is all we need to know,” or in the play I’m in, Challenging the Sea by Helen Posno, “each tragedy must strip me of the truths I’d held before I dance with life through hardship and i dance with the love through loss…” — It’s a shipwreck and we are all into idea, beliefs, and feeling of hopelessness and trying to rev up some feelings of hopefulness so we can survive this terrible derangement.

What advice do you have for politically minded students who are exploring different platforms of messaging?

i hope peopul along with evreething els
they write paint danse film will always
talk abt meeningless n destruktiv dspariteez
in societeez 2 try n make things bettr 4
evreewun now n alwayze
art can say n dew all ths
theoder dreisers novel an amerikan tragedy
bcame th great film a place in th sun wch
louis b mayer lent elizabeth taylor 2 paramount
studios co starting montgomery clift n shelly
wintrs commentid on th crueltee uv th klass
system n th struggil 2 find love n how thos
oftn intrsekt in harsh wayze moonlight wud
b an also brillyant mor recent xampul uv ths
continuing dilemma

I hope people, along with everything else, write, paint, dance, film, always talk about meaningless and destructive disparities in societies to try and make things better for everyone now and always. Art can say and do all this. Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy (which became the great film, A Place in the Sun, in which Louis B Mayer lent Elizabeth Taylor to paramount studios co-starring Montgomery Clift and Shelly Winters) comments on the cruelty of the class system and the struggle to find love and how those often intersect in harsh ways. Moonlight would be an also brilliant more recent example of this continuing dilemma.

Safia Southey

Safia Southey

It’s probably easier to list the countries Safia hasn’t been to than the ones she has - frequently found in her natural habitat of Garavan station, she’s always ready to strike another sovereign state off her list. When she’s not off on an impromptu adventure, Safia is known to her friends as the Kitchen Gremlin, serving up hotcakes and hot takes on media, politics, and global issues. As a Dual BA with Columbia student, Safia looks forward to getting nearly run over while rushing to class in her native New York. Look her up if you ever want professional headshots (not that way), life-changing conversation, or just a couch to crash on in any major city in the Western Hemisphere.
Safia Southey

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