‘There is nothing more shared than language’: Carolyn DeCarlo Interviews Gregory Kan

By and | 1 November 2018

Gregory Kan is a New Zealand poet and arts writer currently living in Wellington. He received an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) at Victoria University in 2012, and was awarded the 2017 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, during which he held a six-month tenure at the Sargeson Centre in Auckland. Kan’s first poetry collection, This Paper Boat, was published by Auckland University Press (AUP) in 2016 and shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Best Poetry in 2017. His second collection, Under Glass, is forthcoming from AUP.

I met Kan in 2013, soon after he had graduated from the IIML and finished co-editing the 2012 edition of Turbine with fellow poet Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. One of my earliest and most memorable associations with Kan is of him coming over for tea at my house wearing a dressing gown as a coat and carrying the ingredients for s’mores – marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers – which we baked in the oven with a fair amount of success. This was a time for a lot of ambitious meetings about the state of poetry readings and opportunities for young writers in Wellington that were, in retrospect, a heavy influence on the reading collective I began cohosting in late 2014, called ‘Food Court’. No s’mores were to be shared during the following interview, but we did discuss academia’s place in poetry, and the presence of certain themes in Kan’s own poems, including philosophy, science, memory, and encoded or othered voices.

Carolyn DeCarlo: You have participated in writing programs and fellowships with academic or artistic affiliations. Your own writing style doesn’t always fit the stereotypical mindset of these traditional avenues, but your continued use of them as a writer suggests you find value in them. What, do you believe, is your relationship with the formal or traditional side of poetry? What would you say are the rewards of engaging with poetry writing within these schemes or platforms?

Gregory Kan: I want to say straight-up that I am very privileged in being able to participate in all these different institutions, programs, worlds. I don’t just mean in terms of the material costs for enrolment, and for you to sustain yourself in that time. I mean also the class and cultural codes and signifiers operating that can seriously advantage or disadvantage you in such places, depending on your background.

I think the various institutions I studied under, and / or was sponsored by, each had their own specific conditions and limitations. For instance, at university I was exposed to both the ‘traditional’ and ‘radical’ sides of the canon of poetry. While for a long time I embraced the latter, more experimental traditions of poetry, it was important for me to learn that they too had their own limits, and their own forms of dogma. One important moment for me was reading Cathy Park Hong’s essay ‘Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde’, which reflects on the Eurocentrism of American avant-garde poetry in the mid and late twentieth century. It took a little while for me to recognise codes and politics of whiteness and non-whiteness that are implicit in these institutions. These are things that I still have to think about, both in terms of how they affect my person and how they affect my work.

Another important moment was realising that the university rewards a kind of ‘intellectual tribalism’, whereby membership determines taste and thought, and not the other way around. There is, of course, deep irony here relative to what I think many of us would like the university to be. Outside of the university, I’ve been excited by what the internet has had to offer in terms of new forms of writing. I’m very happy for these new channels of creation and distribution, relatively free from institutional gatekeepers and the traditional means of production. However, again it was important for me to learn and remember that the internet is far from ‘free’, and that Twitter, for example, has its own codes, conditions, exclusions and dogmas.

On a much more pragmatic level, institutions like the IIML (where I did my masters) and the Grimshaw-Sargeson Trust (where I had a writing fellowship) were great platforms for me. The IIML MA program gave me time, peers and connections. The Grimshaw-Sargeson fellowship gave me time and money. I still think that institutional support is incredibly important for writers and creative practitioners. As labour in general becomes increasingly precarious and creative labour in particular becoming increasingly marginalised, a poet cannot depend on the market to sustain themselves and their practice. Institutions partly represent redistributions of resources. You will have to deal with the particular codes of the institutions you work with. And there is always a cost, and a compromise. But this is true of any world or community, whether that’s high academia or Tumblr. As with anything, you have to decide what’s affordable and desirable for you.

In the last few years, I have had the opportunity of working with contemporary art institutions both in and outside of New Zealand. This is yet another entirely different world. Again, I’ve been very lucky to have these additional channels in which to produce work. It’s too much for me to unpack in detail here. But I can say that I am very grateful to be able to have different conversations and try out different things in the contemporary art world. And again, this world has its own limits, tensions and problems.

CD: Do you continue to seek feedback from fellow writers on your current projects, or do you find the practice of writing and editing to be a solitary act?

GK: I would say that feedback was the most important thing I got from the IIML program (maybe besides time). It is a privilege to have a group of talented people invest so much energy into your work. It was also through the IIML that I formed my earliest, deep friendships with other poets, namely Hera Lindsay Bird and Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. To ‘grow up’ with the two of them has been one of the biggest privileges in my life. I do still look to others for feedback and validation, although my ‘non-writer’ friends have become just as important to me in this process. While writing has long been romanticised as a solitary activity, I find this a laughable idea. There is nothing more shared than language. Even if a piece of writing is never shown to another person, its creation and the conditions of its creation presuppose other people.

CD: I’ve had the pleasure of reading both your forthcoming work, Under Glass, and your first collection, This Paper Boat. With both collections, voice – and specifically, the inclusion of the voices of others – plays a big role in the formation and direction of your work. Can you speak to your interest in using ‘other voices’ in your poetry? Particularly with Under Glass, where is the boundary drawn between attribution of one’s own words and the words of others? In cases where the words are not one’s own, how can they be used to present something authentic and new?

GK: I believe that language is always-already a shared and sharing set of tools and elements. Yet the tradition of writing is so weighed down by the legalistic baggage of property and ownership. Ingredients to make food with, notes and tones to compose music with – no one would accuse a cook or musician that they were using elements that were ‘not one’s own’, in that sense. For me, creative labour is essentially driven by organisation and reorganisation, combination and recombination. It is not about creation ex nihilo, creating something from nothing. This is not a coherent concept to me. Everything new in the universe is assembled from something or some things that preceded it. Sampling in music is now something that is widely accepted, and I’d like to see the same happen in writing. Then again, of course, the act of sampling doesn’t guarantee the merit or success of a piece of work. Neither do I depend on it as my sole tool of composition.

At the same time, I do believe that attribution is extremely important. It’s just as important to credit the source of an earlier combination of words as it is to credit its recombination in or under a new context. I have not finished writing up the notes for Under Glass yet, but this will come. There is also the crucial topic of appropriation and responsibility when dealing with other works. This is something that I have to think about all the time. Some horrible things have happened under the mantle of ‘conceptual poetry’. For instance, white avant-garde American poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place have been terrible agents of misappropriation. Goldsmith wrote and performed a poem that appropriated the autopsy report of Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African American who had been shot by police in St Louis. Place used her Twitter account to regurgitate text (i.e. racist dialogue) from Gone With The Wind. Another example was when Kent Johnson pretended to be and published work as a Japanese war survivor called Araki Yasusada, a figure who did not exist. I find all this completely unconscionable and upsetting. The appropriation of racial bodies, narratives and trauma is not okay. While I love processes of sampling, they are certainly not beyond identity and intersectional politics.

As far as voices go, I think that every individual embodies a multiplicity of voices. In fact, I believe that each individual thing embodies multiple things, both inside and outside of it. I want my writing to reflect and enact that.

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