Thursday, 2 September 2010

Jay McLeod Interview

Jay McLeod in conversation with Frank Burton.

Jay McLeod's poetry collection, The Republic of Naught, can be read online or downloaded for free at

Would you describe the voice in your poems as yourself, or are you speaking through an invented persona?

I would say there is a minimum of artifice to what I write. I write because I need to. A persona would get in the way of that. The creative energy required to create and maintain a persona would detract from the contents of the poems - i.e. the images and events, etc would not be as fully realized because the focus would be inward (on the persona) rather than outward, or on the subject of the poem. I see the poems as largely independent of me. When writing I try to help them along as best as I can, and not get too much in their way.

The poems aren’t necessarily factual or drawn from my own experience, but speak to the kinds of things I wonder about or am concerned about. I’ve got some poems about murder told from the point of view of the killer. I have never killed anybody (yet!) but curiosity causes me to write about it. The voice is mine, but the perspective isn’t - nor could it be.

I see the poems as an extension of my “natural” being. The “me” that works my job is not discrete from the “me” that does housework or interacts with neighbours or writes poetry. If anything, these activities (and attendant states of being) all feed into one another.

To put it another way: it’s all part of the same cloth.

Who are your influences?

The writing I like tends to be of a populist sensibility. I generally go for stuff that is accessible to the general reader / or listener. The following list is in no particular order:

1. Alden Nowlan: an excellent mid-late 20th Century poet from Atlantic Canada.
2. Leonard Cohen: some of his poetry from the sixties and seventies is absolutely deranged.
3. Paul Westerberg: The Replacements are the best rock band ever. PW writes funny, clever, heart-felt, neurotic, realistic lyrics like nobody else.
4. Frankie Stubbs: Leatherface (from Sunderland, UK) is the best rock band you’ve never heard. See the above comments about PW. I can’t overstate how much I enjoy listening to this music / and the lyrics are killer.
5. Dylan Thomas: I haven’t actually read that many of his poems, but the ones I have blown me away.
6. TS Eliot / and the Imagists, generally.
7. Chaucer: I go for the characterization and the comedy.
8. Dostoyevsky: He didn’t write poetry (that I know of) but still.
9. Emily Dickinson: Of course.
10. Bukowski: gruff and heartfelt and cynical and madly prolific. My style is probably more directly indebted to Hank than to any other writer.

How political is your work?

Not very. I think of politics as being a sport for privileged middle-aged people - or for the “activist class”. I vote in nearly every election but I have no allegiance to any particular party or movement. I believe people should be good to each other, and I think that comes through in my writing. What is the opposite of a political agenda? That is what I have.

There seems to be a lot of anger in this collection, but there is also a lot of humour. Did you make a conscious decision to combine these two elements in your poetry?

There is very little to my writing which I decide on consciously. I pick a subject or a line or an image that I find compelling and go from there. The tone of a finished poem might be funny or angry or both. I try not to over-think it. It’s the same kind of thing with a lot of punk music. Nearly everybody I hung around with as a teenager and a younger adult played (or still plays) in a rock band. And of course a lot of it comes from working at jobs you don’t necessarily enjoy when you are younger - and hanging out in apartments and bars after work and the kinds of conversations you have with friends who are doing the same kinds of things you are. It’s angry: like “wow, my day at work sucked so hard” / “this job is demeaning and killing me one day at a time”, but also there are many good, funny moments in there. Funny things happen at work and shows and people’s apartments. Slaughterhouse Five and Trainspotting were two of my favourite novels when I was eighteen or nineteen - and have a similar anger-humour ratio. All of these things informed the kind of writing I did when I was 26 or 27 years old (when I wrote most of the poems in Republic). There’s black humour everywhere.

How well does Adriano Zanni's cover image of the white flag represent the collection?

First of all, I like the picture a lot. It has a kind of timeless quality to it. The blank flag is a screen-within-a-screen: many things could be projected onto that white space. In fact, it isn’t necessarily a flag at all. I think the poems in Republic can be taken in the same way. There are character sketches, one-liners, observations on popular culture, and some throw-away literary references. It’s a grab-bag of words, images, and ideas. It could be crap or it could be brilliant or it could be just kind of “meh”.

When I was sixteen I woke up every morning listening to “Fuck School” and “Kids Don’t Follow” off the Replacements' Stink. Now that I’m in my thirties, I find myself listening to All Shook Down. It’s all one body of work, but the emphasis is different.

A lot of the characters in Republic are kind of down-at-heels, but I don’t think of any of them as being defeated. Each of the poems presents a snapshot of a certain time, or mode of existence for the character(s). The flag on the cover of the collection isn’t necessarily required to mean “surrender” or “defeat”. It speaks only to a moment - and whatever the person seeing it understands it to mean.

I said just a minute ago that I like the “screen within a screen” on the cover of Republic. Chances are you will read it on a computer. So really, the flag becomes a “screen-within-a-screen-within-a-screen”. It’s like one of those Russian dolls. It’s post-modern as hell. It encourages a maximum of engagement with the text.

Finally, how do you feel about internet publishing?

I can’t possibly see how it is a bad thing. The publishing industry is currently going through the same thing the music and movie industries have been experiencing the past decade. Books and reading are less popular as entertainment than music and movies, so it’s taken longer to happen. As happened when the music industry went online, the only people moaning about the shift to internet-based publishing seem to be those (established) publishers and writers with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Internet publishing is good for the environment (saves trees, gas, electricity, etc). It also frees publishers from making decisions based solely on what they think will make money. I guarantee no “traditional” book publisher would have touched Republic. Publishers such as Philistine Press have the opportunity to work on projects which speak directly to their “artistic sensibilities”.

Readers and new writers (like me) have everything to gain from the paradigm shift. The fact that somebody in America or the UK or India or China or Greenland can download my book blows me away.

E-publishing will lead to a greater penetration of literacy among the general public. High literacy rates are directly tied to positive economic and social outcomes. As IT infrastructure becomes more readily available in developing countries, literacy will spread further and help give voice to those who have traditionally been disenfranchised due to remote geography or low socio-economic status.

So: regarding internet publishing: it is all pros and no cons.

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