Simply by virtue of the volume of work he has produced over the course of his career, bill bissett is one of the most important and influential Canadian poets of the past fifty years. He has published at least 85 volumes of poetry since 1966, serving as his own publisher through his blewointment press for the first half of his career. Despite this extremely prolific poetic output, bill bissett is also an accomplished painter and was the lyricist and vocalist for the band, Luddites. His importance to Canadian art and culture, however, transcends the mere volume of material he has produced over his career. He has been at the forefront of several important movements that have shaped Canadian literature during, for lack of a better word, the post-modern period. bissett and blewointment, along with House of Anansi, Coach House and others, took part in the first wave of the small press revolution in Canada that helped diversify the kind of poets and poetry Canadian readers has access to. He was early innovator of both concrete and sound poetry in Canada, combining the visual aspects of the word with an intense interest in chant--which bpNichol notes is the important North American mutation of the global concrete movement (46). This combination of the visual and the aural--along with a strong distrust of the hegemonies that standardization enables--anticipates the single most recognizable aspect of bissett's poetics, his idiosyncratic orthography. In choosing to resist standardized spellings and standardized English, bissett creates a space of resistance against the forces of control. This is where the reader finds bissett the social critic that is suspicious of authority, and it opens on to the mystic or shamanistic poet that seeks transcendence through the ordinary and the erotic: the one that seeks the outside of the closed system of language and the repressed self. bill bissett's poetry lies at the junction of authentic and mundane human experience and the ecstatic. As a result of this resistance and his desire for ecstatic, he shares a dubious honour with poets bpNichol and Bernard Lachance: he is one of the few poets in Canada to have the aesthetic value of his poems discussed on the floor of the House of Commons.
In his essay on poetic invention, "Invention Follies," Charles Bernstein posits that "severe forms of oppression rob a people of its right to poetry--and the crisis for poetry, for the aesthetic, is to create a space for poetry again and again" (35). This drive to create a space for poetry, for art, while resisting oppression and repression is at the centre of bissett's poetics. In his poem "Th Emergency Ward," bissett describes a shrink's misdiagnosis of a cerebral hemorage--apparently feigned so that bissett could get out of painting--and when he is subsequently saved from potentially fatal electro-shock by a neurologist, he wakes mid-surgery and conducts a poetry reading. In the face of oppression and possible death, bissett is able to create a space for poetry and celebrates life.
Ryan J. Cox: When I've given your poems to students, the first thing they notice and have to confront is your approach to language and spelling. It pushes them outside of their comfort zone and, I think, makes them think about their expectations of what a poem is and what a poem looks like. Could you explain why you use an idiosyncratic orthography or language in your writing and how you arrived at the particular approach you use?
bill bissett: whn i bgan writing i was in2 sylabuls stronglee n also painting n drawing n prseevd th lettrs in th image n th shapes strokes n image in th lettrs each lettr espeshulee as writing was is originalee
piktographik n i alwayze wantid th words n th papr 2 look visualee as much as possibul th wayze 4 me th words sylabuls n nuances uv each word wud sound soundid sew th sort uv phonetic spelling b
came natural 2 me n bcame 2 b continualee evolving changing langwage fluid
RJC: Is there a worry that it might or has become systematized? How do you resist possible systemization and still make the work comprehensible?
bb: no worreez2 keep going n letting evreething b as indiviual 2 th sylabul 4 its sound n its enerjee as possibul th sound in th image th image in th sound sylabbul lettrs
RJC: Is it significant that the structural or semiotic difference between the way you present the words on the page and the standardized spellings is apparent visually but not sonically? Is it intended to highlight the difference between notational language and the ephemeral, immediate impact of the spoken word?
bb: uv kours th diffrens btween standardizaysyunal spelling n individual nuansd sound based spelling is sonick evn whn peopul reed silentlee they heer th words n whn they reed aloud its sew sound n th mor sound based or mor phonetik th spelling is th mor sonic th work reelee is sonic meenings see th lettrs btween qween Elizabeth 1st n sir water raleigh n yu see all th shifts in spelling 2 indikate shifts in meening
RJC: How should the reader experience these poems?
bb: i dont kno th word shud its a pressur word i wud hope th reedr xperiences these pomes with xcellens out loud if he or she wants 2 n feels th xcellens mystereez n xplooring gifts uv langwage espeshulee with th sound pomes
RJC: Please describe your writing process
bb: It cums 2 me n i follo go with it whn it th process th writing givn 2 me n me ar in different places as th going with continuez i inklewd that n or both nd th process continues n it i thn whn is thn let go uv it like letting go uv a stroke in a painting th trope fulfills itself n changes changing whethr its a narrativ meditaysyun or say visual or sound pome in in n furthr in n out th work thn is on its
own as it alwayze was is xplooring th that jestyur jestr no
RJC: Has it changed over the years? Has technology effected the way you write or create?
bb: not reelee xsept i dew way less work with typwritr 4 konkreet visual pomes n as in narrativ enigma a lot uv th konkreet visual work ther is dun on th compewtr wher i live reelee sum manee hours a day with email n th writing
RJC: Charles Olson said in his essay on Projective Verse, "It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had." This is a quality of the typewriter I think your work captures, and I believe the way you have been able to use the typewriter to create visual and concrete poetry reveals the way that this rigidity can be exploited. How does the computer compare as a tool for this type of composition?
bb: th compewtr less eezilee 4 th realiteez a typwritrs can dew espeshulee a smith corona n a compewtr can not reelee type wun word or lettr on top uv anothr ther ar ways around ths agen chek out narrativ enigma wher a lot uv th visual work was dun with a compewtrthers still a lot that can dun yes
RJC: What is the role of the poet in society? What is the role of poetry?
bb: th role uv th poet is 2 write n reed poetree th role uv th poet in societee is 2 write n reed poetree
th role uv poetree in societee is sirtinlee 2 continu yes
RJC: What is the poet's responsibility to society and culture?
bb: th responsibilitee uv th poet is 2 th pome
RJC: During the last Canadian federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attacked the arts community saying "when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people." In the late 1970s, you were targeted by several members of parliament in a similar manner on the floor of the House of Commons, though the rhetoric aimed at you was much more extreme with your work being described as "evil" by Robert Wenman. Why do you think this tactic of demonizing the writers and artists persists?
bb: i think th taktik uv demonizing th writrs n all artists prsists as a conservativ rite wing stratajee usualee tho not alwayze 2 mussul free speesh n free xpressyuns 2 create n enfors a crowd control that is xcellent 4 th intrests uv th controlling leedrs 4 theyr profits n wepons sales n powr
RJC: These attacks historically are constructed to be an expression of the thoughts and tastes of the "Canadian people" or the common man or, to use Richard Nixon's label, "the silent majority." Who is the ordinary person and how do they react or relate to the poet?
bb: lukilee ther is no ordinaree prson th idea uv ordinaree peopul is a ficksyun invented by rulrs leedrs 2 keep peopul down another veree machiavelian ploy by th politikul mastrs manee peopul dew love poetree n its praktishyuners sew lukilee 4 th poets n all artists
RJC: Should people in authority be afraid of you?
bb: agen th word shud is not reel from th beginning peopul all peopul need 2 inklewding me let go uv theyr feers meditaysyun xercising not wanting 2 control aneewun all these approaches can help
RJC: looking back, you started writing and publishing during a period of heightened and contentious nationalism in Canada. It was also the period when, arguably, the Canadian literary canon solidified and the New Canadian poetry developed. Is it useful for you as a poet to think of yourself in terms of nation or Canadian-ness? Do you feel that there is anything intrinsically Canadian about your work?
bb: sure pomes like th Canadian n killer whale both in BYOND EVN FAITHFUl LEGENDS n Canada in my mouths on fire love uv life th 49th parallel in nobody owns th erth th writing work is also abt evreething
RJC: Your work is consistently described as shamanistic and Blakean, and, without a doubt, there is a strong spiritual component to your work. What I think gets discussed less is the focus on real lived experience. An example would be when you write "th trucks ar/ goin past ium pretty/ stond thrs still a/ lotta light ium/ alone typing/ what i feel for/ yu" in pomes for yoshi. Is it important for you to balance these two aspects of your work?
bb: thees 2 realms being bcumming oftn inform n modify each othr help each othr speek 2 each othr
in my nu book novel ther is a pome specifikalee abt what yu ar saying reelee its calld mariashi mewsik in th chinees restaurant sumthing like that its reelee xaktlee calld ium in th chinees restaurant neer by i dont think these 2 th spiritual n th reel livd xperiences realm ar in anee way mutualee xklusiv or ar in anee binaree opposisyunal relaysyunshp with each each othr they reelee can inform each othr tho they ar different realms ther ar sew manee realms uv consciousness yes
RJC: Does the transcendent work without the mundane? The magical without the physical?
bb: 4 sum peopul maybe 4 me they enchance n oftn inhabit each othr
RJC: You have been incredibly prolific producing approximately 78 books in your career. What drives this need to produce and publish?
bb: th taktilitee uv lettrs th pickshurs in th lettrs as well uv kours th silk screen deepr thn diamonds n time th thrill uv artikulaysyun however it follos itself r sum names or unnamed goal thats 2 write n 2 paint 2 publish n 2 show is 4 me an offshoot uv thees aktivitees a necessaree n oftn veree fun n xhilerating xperiens 2 say 2 show 2 share 2 b bcumming
RJC: For the first half of your career, you were primarily your own publisher and editor at blewointmentpress. Since 1981 Talonbooks has served as your publisher. What are benefits and the deficiencies of each publishing model?
bb: theyr both great benefits self publishing yr choices 4 book size can b mor vareed 4 publishing with talonbooks n all th othr publishrs i workd with b4 talonbooks yu get access 2 a biggr market othr kinds uv presentaysyun choices working with talonbooks has bin an awesum wondrous n wundrful xperiens alwayze
RJC: Do you miss being your own publisher?
bb: i lovd being my own publishr tho it wasint xklusivlee sew n it was wrenching 2 give it up i espeshulee lovd n enjoyd sew much printing othr writrs works n dewing theyr books but i fairlee soon didint miss it sew much as nu n othr opportuniteez wer alwayze opning up
RJC: The internet theoretically makes the ability to publish and proliferate poetry, thoughts and ideas available to anyone with access to the web. What does this do poetry and the community of writers and readers?
bb: inkreesing access 2 evreething n that is alwayze xcellent yes
RJC: Where does poetry go next?
bb: poetree totalee goes next wher it goes in all its multi fasiting infinit wayze approaches n beings
RJC: You are known primarily as a poet, but you are also a painter and visual artist and you've performed music with a band. What attracts you to these diverse modes and how do they inform each other?
bb: th lettrs in th image th image in th lettrs strokes shapes strong diffrenses sumtimes in th writing n painting n drawing n also amayzing similariteez
RJC: How did you come to perform with Luddites?
bb: they askd me 2 play with them wun nite in theyr rehersal n thn they askd me in n i realizd it had bin an audishyun i had a lot 2 lern n i lovd lerning it writing lyrics 4 th mewsik dewing th vokal
work th math all th wundrful gigs we did i was part uv an amayzing xperiens lovd it n lernd a ot n
unlernd a lot amayzing time 4 me
RJC: How would you describe the group's sound? When I've listened to the songs I'm reminded of groups like Public Image, Ltd, early Sonic Youth, and a little of Suicide, but it may just be that these groups all have an avant garde sound.
bb: iuv thot uv thos groups yu mensyun as echoes n velvet undrground peopul have mesyund 2 me n us at th time n i wud def describe luddites sound as alternativ rock peopul also sd we wer like th cure but mostlee like ourselvs
RJC: What music do you listen to these days?
bb: reelee evreething
RJC: What have you been reading?
bb: A perfect waiter by alain claude sulzer