In my ongoing mission to interview each of the 47 members in Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene, I spoke to guitarist Andrew Whiteman last month ahead of his two upcoming O, Miami poetry festival events at Purdy Lounge (Literary Death Match Thursday night and Broken Social Spam Friday night).
Besides being in at least three bands — Apostle of Hustle and AroarA in addition to Broken Social Scene — Whiteman is also a dedicated reader and writer of poetry. In our interview, we spoke about his upcoming book of poems, Tourism; Jewel, Billy Corgan, and other “horrible” poet-musicians; and the time he jammed in the Arctic with an experimental Inuit throat singer beneath a 90-foot glacier. (I know, that last one is so banal, but Whiteman insisted we talk about it.)
What can you tell me about Tourism?
It’s largely about being on tour, something people don’t really know about. It’s about my experiences touring [with Broken Social Scene] in 2010 … for Forgiveness Rock Record. We went to Europe three times, we went to Asia twice, North America a few times.
Did that tour stand out to you as good material over previous tours for any reason?
Well, you know, it’s good because it’s contained. It’s a specific time and a specific record. April 2010 to, say, February 2011. It’s nice. People can handle that. Poetry is difficult enough to have people read. You know what I mean? You put a frame on something and it’s kinda easier for people to take it or leave it.
Poetry isn’t exactly popular in our culture, which is something O, Miami is working to change. Do you think a book of poetry based on a touring rock band might reach a broader audience than most books of poetry?
It’s certainly possible. Jewel sold a lot of books [laughs]. I’m in the same camp by doing this as a lot of absolutely horrible musicians and worse poets, like Billy Corgan and Jewel and let’s see — who else? Ryan Adams. That’s not the exact company I’d like to keep. My point in mentioning those books is that they get printed. People do buy them.
I think poetry right now is pathetic. I mean, reading’s place in culture is highly diminished since TV, and poetry goes down with that. But within the reading world, I don’t think poetry has lost any sort of ratio as a piece of the pie.
That’s not my experience. I know fiction writers who are like, “I don’t read poetry.”
In that case, that’s too bad. Because if someone gets something out of reading, then that is a little tragic that they’re not finding the right type of poetry that would turn them on because it’s absolutely out there.
What turns you on?
My favorite poet writing today is Alice Notley. I haven’t even dipped into European poetry or British or Australian. I don’t know much about any of that. I read almost exclusively American and Canadian poetry. Given that, Alice Notley is my number one.
Hear Whiteman discuss how Notley’s poetry “engages with multiple levels of reality at once”, but not in a Tron way.
Who else? Anne Waldman. Joanne Kyger. Tom Clark. I’m less connected with poets of my age because I have a limited interest in computer-based poetry, like Flarf or something like that. With me, I like to go back. I like to go backwards, instead of going forward.
I also do a lot of listening to poetry. I think poetry is really benefitting from sound files on the web. That’s how I really got back into it a few years ago, when I found PennSound and UbuWeb and started being able to listen to poets rather than just reading them. Often I can’t understand a poem as well [if I don’t read it out loud]. Even if I’m on a plane and I’m reading poetry, I kinda have to make the words with my mouth. I don’t have to say it out loud, but I have to mouth it. That helps me lock it. It’s very physical.
Getting back to Tourism, do you have a deal or is it independent?
I don’t have a deal man. I’ve got some friends that are small pressers. In the poetry world, there’s a huge gap between the stuff I consider relevant and engaging and the stuff I consider self-satisfied and weak, to be honest. Unfortunately, the poets that I don’t really like get paid much money, and the poets I care about get paid very little at all.
So, yeah, I’m doing this totally independently. Maybe we’ll make 100 copies of my book and sell it. More than likely I‘ll give 75 away because that’s the economy. Poetry is a gift economy.
How far along is the book?
I’m not very far along. Hopefully I’ll be done by the end of this year and put it out next year.
What connection do you make between the music you make and the poetry you write?
Nothing. None. I don’t like it all fuzzy like that. There are lyricists in rock music that I highly, highly admire and blow my mind, but I don’t want to get into that grey area of the lyrics-poetry comparison. I don’t see it. I like Ezra Pound, for example, because of the music in his writing, but I don’t like comparing the music and the poetry. It’s too easy to say. It seems so stock. It’s not examined enough for me.
There are a lot of lauded lyrics that would be trash poetry, but they’re not trash lyrics.
Exactly. I agree. But I contradict myself. I don’t think Hip Hop is poetry — it’s Hip Hop. But give me fuckin’ MF Doom any day. We can talk about Dan Bejar from Destroyer or [Steven] Malkmus or Bill Callahan — that is some genius fucking lyrics. You can’t beat those guys. And [BSS frontman] Kevin Drew is a fantastic lyric writer. But those are not poems.
You don’t think Bill Callahan’s lyrics are getting close to poetry? His music seems almost like a backdrop for his lyrics in a way that’s different than most rock bands.
No, I don’t think it’s getting close because it’s still very much a song. When Bill Callahan doesn’t want to write a song, he writes. He put out a book of short stories last year, which was amazing. [Ed. note: I believe Whiteman was referring to Letters to Emma Bowlcut.]
But I’ll contradict myself about this because the two [lyrics and poetry] are related. [Ed. note: Whiteman went on to describe a project he’s working on with a band called Aurora where he is turning the poems in Alice Notley’s In The Pines, which are based on folk songs, back into songs.]
So what’s the story with Apostle of Hustle — are you doing anything with them?
I did one thing with Apostle last year, which was amazing. We went up to the Arctic and played music with a friend of ours named Tanya Tagaq who is an Inuit throat singer and experimental vocalist. We went up to these glaciers and played music up there. But right now, no, because I’m kinda working on this poetry stuff. We’re going to make music again, but not right now.
Can you tell me more about playing in the Arctic?
So I’m up in the Arctic and Dean [Stone, Apostle of Hustle member] brought his cajón — his flamenco percussion — and I brought my tres, and I had a battery-powered amp. And Tanya doesn’t have an instrument other than her voice. We’re walking around playing in these huge parkas and boots. We would find these 90-foot glaciers and play underneath them with the reverb. It was incredible. [Ed. note: You can hear tracks from the recording on nationalparksproject.ca.]
What can you tell me about your O, Miami event, Broken Social Spam?
That’s basically just a poetry reading. One of my oldest friends in the world is DJ Le Spam [Andrew Yeomanson of Spam Allstars]. He’s going to pull out some of his spoken-word records, and we might — to be honest, I don’t know what the fuck we’re doing yet. [Laughs] Whatever it is, it’s going to be great because whatever poems I choose to read will be necessary to be heard. [People] need to hear engaging, mind-blowing American poetry so they can go “Oh, wait a minute. This is fucking good.” Hopefully people will hear it and go, “Goddamit, I’m getting a fucking book by Louis Zukofsky” or “I need some Joanne Kyger! She is fucking good!” And because I’m with Spam, we might be able to put together some creepy background music. He might bring his turntable. I don’t know yet. It’ll be entertaining whatever it is.
You can learn more about Whiteman’s O, Miami events on omiami.org.