Julia Weber, Poetry Editor: First of all, congratulations on the publication of your second book In On The Great Joke (Coach House, 2016). I’d like to begin by asking you about the title. Do you remember the first time you came across the expression “The Great Joke”? I was once told that by the end of my degree in the humanities I would at least be “in on the joke.” This was presented to me as a sort of resolve for a future of minimal job prospects. Did you ever have a similar conversation?
Laura Broadbent: Thanks! I can’t remember the first time I heard the phrase, though I like to think of it as what happens when we are born: out of the vagina and into the joke, on our way of being in on the joke (death). I probably heard the phrase for the first time in elementary school when I was finally let in on a joke rather than being the butt of it. As the book’s title, “In on the Great Joke” is a ludic little description of knowing that the things we believe aren’t what we think they are - a direct wink to Buddhist and Taoist thought.
As per the humanities comment, yes—I was told that plenty. I’ve been in on the post-humanities-degree joke now for two and a half years and in that time I dropped out of my PhD twice, I published my second book, I taught at Concordia and La Salle, I wrote freelance as a copy/content writer/editor for a bunch of different companies, I catered, I cut hair, I’m now managing Drawn and Quarterly full-time, and I’m helping develop an artist collective called Godberd. I’m applying for grants, writing articles, and writing my next books in the mornings. It’s not as much of a joke as the ‘lol-good-luck-with-post-humanities-degree’ admonition implies. Though I had plenty of more-than-broke spells, terribly sad spells, and I grew my first gray hairs. Life itself is the great joke.
JW: Part of what I love about your work is how often you weave philosophy from a variety of traditions into your pieces. For example: In “Lao Tzu Applies for a University Position”, you imagine what a post-secondary syllabus by Lao Tzu might look like—how in working as a professor he might “gently exploit the rigid systems that articulate our institutions”. In one of your earlier poems, “Between A and B” from Oh There You Are I Can’t See You Is It Raining? (Invisible Publishing, 2012) you use the mathematical language of the Ancient Greek philosopher Zeno to grapple with questions around the formation of identity. Can you speak a bit about your understanding of the convergences between Eastern and Western philosophical traditions? What elements from either canon do you find most engaging?
LB: Both traditions are animating forces in my life - they animate my creativity, my thinking and refine the structure of my values. I wish there was a convergence between Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. There are many books on the subject of said convergence but honestly, much of these attempts are largely dismissed. Meanwhile, many Western theorists or philosophers (like, say, Deleuze) ‘come up with’ theories that have actually existed in the East for decades if not thousands of years. In short and in my opinion, Western philosophy and theory has often thought itself into its own corners, yet still refuses (or refuses to acknowledge) the guidance of older, non-Western thought. It seems to me that the Western tradition egotistically and defiantly isolates itself in myopia and looks upon many eastern traditions with derision (if it looks at all) which is just a petulant, adolescent thing to do. I honestly think of the Western tradition as a precocious teenage boy - he gets A-pluses, he’s doing his PhD at 17, but he’s totally unbearable in crucial ways: he’s precocious, but not wise, and he’s proooobably sexist and racist.
The old and tired Freud/Jung dichotomy in academia is exemplary of this. In academia (aside from religion and theology), if you sincerely reference Jung or think him a serious and viable scholar, you will be dismissed as much as Eastern Philosophy is, simply because spirituality is considered implicit to thought. Honestly I think Freud was exceptionally brilliant and groundbreaking, but much of his theories were/are limiting if not damning (especially to the female species) while Jung’s theories were and are so generative. Plus he’s exquisitely nuts - look at his Red Book. Honestly an abstract part of why I left academia is because Jung is literally laughed at and thanks-but-no-thanks to being surrounded by a bunch of neurotic Freudian dudes. It’s about as comfortable as being naked in a meat freezer.
That said, I’m an ardent student of Western thinkers, to say the least. Ultimately I am after wisdom, not just disembodied cleverness, so what I do is I converge and bridge elements of different traditions within myself - they speak to and enrich each other. I didn’t answer your question specifically because I find many elements of both traditions highly engaging. Western philosophy has a preoccupation with investigating what constitutes the Self and how and why, while a lot of Eastern thought is concerned with dismantling that self and how and why. Philosophy is supposed to be about the love of wisdom and the search therein but I find nothing wise in an exclusive canon, which the Western Canon is. I mean, where are the women, even, let alone other traditions? It’s certainly not because women and ‘foreigners’ are not capable of rigorous thought, it’s because the Western canon was curated by a snotty-nosed trust-fund boy.
JW: Both OTYAICSYIIR and In On The Great Joke are concerned with the limits of language and problems of translation. Do you have any advice for someone dealing with these frustrations? Whether in writing or in day-to-day interactions?
LB: Well, with the frustrating limits always in mind, what I try to live by are these:
- In writing - be playful with language. Bend words to point to what lies outside of words (that conundrum, that thing that is both so close to and elusive from our lived experience).
- In day-to-day interactions, say as little as possible and and when you do have to speak, make it concise or speak in koans.
JW: During Concordia University’s Writers Read event this Fall where you read alongside Lisa Robertson, an audience member asked about the role of the self in poetry. Robertson said it was important for her to get rid of the self entirely. If I remember correctly—let me know if I'm mistaken—you agreed with this sentiment. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit. As you know, there’s a tendency in the West to associate poetry with the personal, lyrical “I”; to conflate speaker and writer—especially in the works of female-identified poets. You definitely have a voice in your work, and yet you move effortlessly in and out of the voices of others: deceased writers; jealous men; two personified sides of a brain. Would you define this as your process of "getting rid of the self"?
LB: A line in my posthumous interview with Lispector has everything to do with this. She says, “If I say “I” it’s because I don’t dare say “you” or “we” or “a person,” I am the you—are.” This is everything to me. “I am the you-are.” Why I am often really candid in writing or interviews is because I don’t hold my “I” as a precious - it could easily be you, or anybody. I am not special and it is very important that I know this. Life is special, and I am part of life. So in that way I am just as you are and pylons are. And the different characters or voices I inhabit in my writing could just as easily be me - the ‘I” can be entirely fluid if you let it. Then there’s the more spiritual or mystical aspect of this, as in “God” can only be an expression through oneself if that sense of ‘self’ is removed. A Buddhist definition of true music is when the musician is rendered an empty bamboo—hollowed out from the inside so the air (Spirit) can flow through it and create sound. As opposed to a pejorative sense of emptiness associated with hollowing oneself of the self, it is a very full and complex emptiness, maybe like dark matter. Anne Carson’s titular essay ‘Decreation’ is all about this and about how three different hardcore mystic femmes went about this. I think one thinks that they’d lose their identity or become schizo[phrenic] if they ventured too fully into the ‘no I’ territory. But for me and in my experiments with this it is a profoundly liberating experience that opens me to this huge cosmic joke.
JW: Finally, in your “Short Film” pieces, the genre of screenplay informs poetry and vice versa. What is it about the cinematic form that attracts you most? And: have you seen any good films lately?
I see things as films in my head - I think a lot of people do. The “Short Films” honestly just appeared in my mind’s eye and I went with it. I see them so vividly. Aesthetically I saw them very much resembling the vignettes in the film “You the Living” directed by Roy Anderson. The tone of them too—slightly absurdist, darkly comic, but also carrying a lot of weight, Roy Anderson does that well. I just wanted to see if I could get away with it, and to explore the possibilities of working within those parameters. I really want to get my Short Films made.
The last movie I saw was “Hidden Figures” with my mom. It’s a Hollywood film, not terribly artistic, but I just approve of any film that celebrates the intelligence, grit and grace of women, especially women of colour. Last film-film I re-watched was Close Up by Abbas Kiarostami whom I revere.
Laura Broadbent is a writer, and the author of In On The Great Joke.