REVIEW and INTERVIEW: The Things I Heard About You

The Things I Heard About You
by Alex Leslie
Nightwood (2014)
Read by Fazeela Jiwa

The poems of The Things I Heard About You (2014)are arranged into four-part sequences that begin with an original and then shed words three times until only one phrase or one word remains. The constant presence of “smaller” at the end of each version continuously dares the author to distil words, and is influenced by John Thompson’s claim in Stilt Jack, “I know how small a poem can be.”

It would seem fitting to describe these iterations as Russian dolls, except that analogy implies that each version looks like the original, only smaller. Instead, Leslie’s distillation and rearrangement of the original words opens new worlds within the same story. Subsequent versions may be smaller but despite this, the startling re-combinations of words and phrases explore the creases of the first iteration.

“Pacific phone book” for example: the first piece in this sequence tells the story of a narrator flipping through a moist phone book to find someone they used to know, a cancer survivor who “decided to be positive and therefore became humourless.” The mood is heavy with some resentment at a friend who “fell away.” As the words shed, empathy emerges “I open the story at cancer… you left to maul wet loss. Therefore, place fell away.” The last and smallest version simplifies the narrator’s emotions; at the root of resentment there is only a stark desire for simple intimacy: “Dreamed you crossed and washed me.” In all of the poems in this book, the smaller lines delve into the deeper context of the story, and as Larissa Lai observes on the back cover, they often express the opposite of what is first presented. This technique highlights how much of any experience is always unsaid, but also how much can be said with just a few winnowed words.

The structure lends itself well to Leslie’s nostalgic content; many of the poems present memories or dreams that are similarly layered in structure. The narrator of “Everyone who sits up here is gay” analyzes graffiti on a wall while cutting class and smoking in the sun. The smaller versions then reveal thoughts on lust and gender, the more internal aspects of this teenage memory. Similarly, “Dump stories” remembers an enigmatic figure from the narrator’s past, “Dumpster diver, scrounger, hoarder, fairy-tale monster, the things I heard about you.” Shrinking, the words people used to describe the man fall away and the narrator questions, “how did you become scrap.” It ends with only one evocative image, “Thumbprint,” a detail that highlights the man’s humanity and identity amidst the assumptions that others heave upon him.

I read The Things I Heard About You differently each time, inspired to make my own reconfigurations of the words, like reading smallest to biggest or reading all the smallest versions together as one poem. No matter how readers engage with it, Leslie’s innovative form and imagery promises to stir.

Fazeela Jiwa had the opportunity to interview Alex Leslie about The Things I Heard About You. Here is what they discussed:

1) You say that your technique in The Things I Heard About You was influenced by John Thompson’s line in Stilt Jack, “I know how small a poem can be.” So, how small can a poem be? Is the one-word poem in the last version of “Dump stories” as small as it seems?

The pieces operate differently in relation to size/length. I was trying to work with the idea of distillation rather than erasure — so smaller can be bigger, in the sense that the piece’s root or core becomes more exposed. In some pieces, the words become increasingly abstract or oblique. For me, with my background as a fiction writer, there is this huge legacy of the idea of the “le mot juste,” which translates as “the right word” and comes from Flaubert — this idea that there is a right way to word things that will perfectly capture something. This is an idea and process I’ve struggled with in my writing, right from my first published stories. I wrote these pieces in part in resistance to that but, as things tend to go, really this
project drew me into exploring this even more, and now I’m working on a book of stories again. So it goes. The piece that concludes with the word “Thumbprint” is for me about the irreducibility of any human
being. The piece struggles with rumours, hearsay, shattered descriptions of a community outcast, and concludes with “Thumbprint.” The piece expands and contracts and finally expands to all the connotations and meanings held within one word.

2) What was the impetus to shed words and make your poem smaller? How did you choose which words to shed?

It’s interesting because I read a review in which the reviewer speculated that I purposefully made the first piece ornate in order to break it down — this reading had never occurred to me! In reality the first piece was written to evoke a particular photograph. These are all photographs I’ve taken over the last few years that contain stories for me. Of course while writing the initial pieces I knew that I would be going through this process, but I focused on bringing in all the associations, thoughts and colours I could, and there was no forward planning while writing each initial piece. I then went through a strict procedure where I wrote each piece in the sequence from the first piece. I say “strict” because in the first part of the process the words had to be in the same order as they were in the first piece — I conceived of this in a much more strict way than the end product…so it goes. These pieces sat around for a while and when I returned to them I edited for sound, rhythm and texture. I shifted words throughout the sections and played with punctuation to place sound-emphasis on different words (we read meaning through the sound in sentences…in this sense all written sentences are dialogue). This was an intuitive method and I can’t pin down a way I made “decisions” — many pieces surprised me in where they went. A few pieces told me where they needed to go right away. Some pieces were abandoned completely because the process didn’t work, even if the initial
section worked. When you edit your own work you really don’t know what you’ll find.

3) I visited the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last month and learned that he designed a program that would take his sentences, identify its parts, and then reconfigure them into new phrases and images. He described it as a way of reaching into his subconscious and having access to the wild images of the dreamscape “without doing the boring work of falling asleep.” I found your technique reminiscent of that – how did you react to the imagery that rearranging your own words created?

Yes, absolutely, I agree with this. I think that this is the greatest thing I’ve learned from experimental and process-based writing — you experience that you are absolutely not an individual separate from the generative processes of language. Your language will surprise you and teach you how you see and think. I don’t agree with Bowie’s statement about accessing the dreamscape because I believe that we are always dreaming on some level. Description is entirely subjective, emotional, contextual. Writing for me is a way to separate out the layers of experience and say “look at this!” I include memory — all forms of
memory, including sense memory — in this. When you take your own words as “given” and you work with them, you find out you are composed of many different things. And it never ends.

4) The graphics associated with the sequences are striking, how do they fit with your words?

Full credit goes to Carleton Wilson. He has done a lot of work with my publisher Nightwood and with my editor Silas White. Because my book is part of the experimental poetry imprint blewointment and so Silas asked Carleton to create images to accompany my pieces. I had the opportunity to work with Carleton on these images late in the process of creation and we collaborated on the concept of the cover, which I love. Everybody should check out Carleton’s website and hire him to design their books, he is just the best:

5) The ocean is a recurring symbol in your work, a seemingly ambivalent one that is alternatingly alienating and comforting in its power. Why is the ocean important in your writing?

I now make the joke when I introduce my work that the saltwater has soaked into my brain. I grew up on the West coast, have lived on the coast (literally within walking/biking distance) my entire life. How does that not become a part of you? I am very struck when I travel somewhere landlocked that the ocean is not there, to my left, all the time. It’s simply a core part of my consciousness. It comes up in my writing all the time. Last year I biked several times a week to university and my route crossed two arms of the Fraser River and
followed the Pacific ocean all the way to university. I got to know the fog, tides and weather systems very well. I have probably breathed more rain than air in my life. I do believe in the power of the ocean and it is a force that I return to again and again in my writing. I try not to control my writing too much — if I’m going somewhere, I let myself go there. I go to the ocean again and again.

This summer I was very honoured to be invited to respond to the work of Chief Dan George by the Tsleil Waututh for their Salish Sea festival, which protests oil pipeline development in their territory and works to protect their waters. I wrote a poem for the festival and was glad to be invited by them to go on a canoe trip across the water to where the Kinder Morgan plant is and witness a ceremony. This experience really impressed on me the centrality of water in my life — also a good reminder that the land here is unceded, meaning that there were never any treaties or negotiations with the original Indigenous people here. You can read my poem from that event here:

6) As a reader, I felt inspired by your reconfiguring and experimented with rearranging the sequences of your poems. I read some of them backwards, and I read all of the smallest together in their own sequence. What do you think of my experimentation?

Oh, I’d never thought of reading them laterally according to position in the sequence. I need to go try to do that. I have heard the suggestion of reading them from smallest to largest, just to see how that would be, but audiences seem to enjoy listening for the changes from biggest to smallest. I love the idea of reading them laterally. I’d be curious to hear about the results of that experiment. It’s interesting, because when a writer from the Rusty Toque spoke to me, she emphasized that the pieces really spoke to her as a sequence overall, that the book had an arc and emotional journey for her. I think that the fragmented and oblique nature of the work invites these cross-readings and more “wholistic” readings if I can use that term —
the pieces are presented as speaking to each other and so readers feel invited to join into the process and continue the process of meaning-making, which I love. You can read the Rusty Toque interview here: