Half Empty, Since 1998

The work of Canadian writer and poet Stan Rogal has made a mark for himself at home and abroad. Nathaniel G. Moore chats with him and discusses "The Long Ride Home" and "Lines Of Embarkation."

Stan Rogal: The Imaginary Muse

Nathaniel G. Moore. January 16th, 2000

ON "THE LONG DRIVE HOME"

Poetry and prose, a novel, and a great deal of theatre experience makes Stan Rogal one of the most prominent writers in Toronto. This year two books (a novel “The Long Drive Home,” and a book of poems “Lines of Embarkation” were published by two different Toronto presses this year. He’s been running the Idler Pub reading series, and is working on a play with his Bald Ego Theatre. His new poetics delves heavily into the scientific, perhaps due to the millennium buzz this format seems appropriate. While tradition 20th Century poetics have relied heavily on the human condition, these new works of Stan Rogal’s are language poems, and deal with the structure of assonance. What makes this collection different from his others is these poems are influenced by the sciences.

Moore: You’ve written poetry, had five books of poetry published, completed your first novel, short fiction, is there any particular work you’ve done which you feel was overlooked?

Rogal: It took a long time to get a book published .I think that I have a real tough time getting my plays produced. I don’t know if I’m hanging around enough in those circles. the only acting I do is with Bald Ego Theatre unless a friend calls. I don’t have an agent. I’m not out there doing commercial stuff. I want to do serious theatre, doesn’t mean it can’t be funny, but I want to do theatre that excites me. I think that the fact that I am not having theatres do my stuff; for whatever reason, I’ve kind of gotten away from writing plays at this point.

Moore: Is Toronto a theater city?

Rogal: It’s gotta be Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, I mean there are playwrights around, most of the major playwrights are in those areas, and of course there’s a few in to right now, whose plays are being put on all the time ; Daniel MacIvor, there’s a lot of young playrights coming out of Toronto.

Moore: As a writer what are your goals, do you feel pressured to set them in what many perceive as a competitive business?

Rogal: Basically, because no one is paying me, I’m successful in terms of the fact that my books are coming out. But I’m certainly not making any money, some excellent reviews, but it’s how to sell the book, and of course I’m not a book seller, I go and do readings, or if I get good reviews then people will buy the book, but basically, I write what interests me, I’m my biggest critic, if it doesn’t interest somebody else well that’s the way it goes and if it does, so much the better. I really write for myself. Goals? I want to keep writing, I want to get more involved in Theatre.

Drama

……and when you have a play you have lights, sound, and actors and all these different facets that you can play around with quick cuts etc..

Fiction

With storytelling it’s more narration. I like the idea I can just talk, I don’t want to explain too much because I think a lot of times in conversations characters talk about things but they talk around them more than they talk about them or if you are in a group the conversation goes hit and miss around the table and you still end up with five or six conversations but you still can generally follow. And that’s what I was using in the novel where two people are talking but I didn’t break it down to he said she said because there is an understanding between the two of them they have a whole history so they don’t have to fill any of the gaps and it’s the same conversation it really doesn’t matter who is saying what.

Published by Insomniac Press in April 1999, The Long Drive Home is Stan Rogal’s first novel. Broken up into almost cinamatic styled clips, the story moves from city to city, crossing over to Maine in the states, back to Toronto, to small towns in Quebec.

Moore: Why a road novel?

Rogal: The whole mystic of the road novel inspired me to write this, the idea began as a short story 2 people travelling on the road, a man meets this woman a couple of times, it’s coincidental, you hear her phone conversations to her husband where she is building up this I’m being followed type thing but you don’t get his ; then at the end you get the idea that he had also made phone calls to his wife, and in the end their stories are just in fact a coincident.

Moore: Ocassionally it felt like a controlled version of Kerouac’s On The Road, what was the process for you to pull this almost road movie style off and incorporate in your novel?

Rogal: I think it reflects a lot of my prose, and my playrighting…. very clipped. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I was raised on TV and movies and also when I was studying a lot of the literature, a lot of the writing I got away from long passages and description which didn’t seem to go anywhere. Maybe I’m just more bottom-line oriented I wanted to move things along a little bit quicker without giving away a lot. So there’s a lot of innuendoes, room for the reader to wonder what is going to happen….are they covering something…to propel things that way?

Moore: Influences?

Rogal: I think just the whole idea of wanting to try different things, having stories to tell, when I went to University 1977 Simon Fraiser after splitting from my first wife I figured I might as well enjoy myself. After taking some creative writing courses it was suggested by a professor D.H. Sullivan, to try writing poetry because it will condence your writing, you will concentrate on the langueage, taht was probably the biggest lesson I learned. One of my books Sweet Betsy From Pike I was studying paintings of Bosh, using the whole idea of transformation…

The Structure

It’s one of those things that came organically, I wanted to write a book that took place over a couple days, I knew it was a guide book, in the book, along with people reading things, radio station, paper napkins with maps, I’m just offering guideposts so it’s like the reader doing this travellign along with the characters of the books.

We are minutes away from Book City, a small three store franchise in Toronto. This ties into my question on the small press scene, the independent book stores threat of extinction. We discuss the corporate cut-throat nature of Chapters, the lighter side of what many indie Toronto and Canadian stores feel is a threat.

Moore: What is your take on the small press scene in Toronto?

Rogal: I think that in terms of the small presses, they will keep going, the small presses always do, some die out others grow. I know someone like Mike at Insomniac Press is wanting to publish stuff that is on the edge but he knows he also has to publish books that sell so it’s a bit of a cross-over where he’s publishing books he hopes will make some money so he can keep publishing the more literary stuff. I think some small presses will do that, who have been publishing poetry for years and years will keep publishing the poetry as long they get their grants. In terms of bookstores, unfortunately Chapters is one of the few bookstores that will carry a lot of small press material. Because like they say they’ve got the space, they put it out in the open. A lot of small bookstores had their little corner, with more literary works small press work, but they had their own niches who they were selling to and what kind of books they were selling. I happen to look the small bookstore, I think Pages is a great bookstore, their clientele is a lot of people who want to buy books about writing, culture, and people feel a lot more comfortable there than in a place like Chapters. So on one hand it’s nice that they carry all my books, on the other hand it’s hard to get the small stores to carry more poetry because everyone knows that poetry doesn’t sell. I think that the small bookstores will continue on that balance, having a little of the small presses, poetry and I don’t think they’ll succumb to mainstream because they’re not going to compete with Chapters on that level anyway. So I think they have to know who they’re selling to, and what they’re customers want from them.

On "Lines of Embarkation"

This is the first of Rogal’s books to feature samples of the author’s collage work. “Rogal walks the line, the fine line between the mundane & miraculous, love & story, heart & break” (Books in Canada). “Calling for an aesthetic of the unexpected. / Wearing the Fool’s coat to be other than. / Coughs up toads & / shits cocks of starlings / Singing from his asshole / to conjure amuse.” Stan Rogal starts his new collection by citing praise to Douglas R. Hofst√ädter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, inspiration.

In the poem BEARDED EROS Rogal makes a reference to both Latin and contemporary poetics with Giaus Valerius Catullus (Ancient Roman Lyric Poet) and german writer Viktor Shklovsky. The focus on language and sound is apparent:

The ghosts you secrete are worms eager for fish.

This collection of poetry when matched with his older works seems a lot more logical and tighter. This may simply be the attempt at bridging the logic of science with the random acts of poetry.

The idea behind his new book, he explains is borrowing from the sciences. “Poetry I find very much collage-like things, probably a little bit more abstract that way than my short stories. I try to find different discourses so if I’m doing a lot of reading on chaos theory, which is what GEOMETRY OF THE ODD uses as a metaphor, the idea of chaos, and pulling scientific discourse and using it in my poetry because I found when I was reading a lot of the sciences they are now using poetic language in ways of explaining the world because they can no longer do it with numbers, sort of thrown up their hands and said okay we admit it there’s a lot things that we can’t explain so they needed something more creative so they’re borrowing from poets and so I thought poets should be able to borrow from scientists.”

Literature, for years relied heavily on the human empathy factor, now writers are using simply knowledge, knowledge on any level to attempt to link their readers to the meaning, not just for their writing, their art, but the basic fundamentals of communication.

Our society is highly developed on a visual level, we can digest just about anything. However, once we throw a word onto the canvas, people throw their arms up, as if it is locusts. Because logic has trained us to digest SALLY GOES TO THE STORE instead of THE GOES TO STORE SALLY the plain for understanding this progressive medium has been tampered with.

Sentences with nouns as nouns, verbs as verbs and adjective as *you guessed it; adjectives have spoiled it for literature. Bill Bisset is another poet whose writing is a complete abandon to natural English cohesiveness, actually transcending the idea of wordplay. With Bisset’s work there are no rules and it’s a lot of fun to read. Stan Rogal’s new book is along these same lines, not to the same extreme, (enuf / enough) pushing the envelope of our own systems. These poems are for the most part short and direct, and simplify our mental blocks, our own pre-conceived notions on how words should tell a story, showing us that we are all very spoiled in terms of language.

The voice shouts out that predictable reader’s thought patterns can be as boring as predictable rules of verse. Stan Rogal is no pioneer, perhaps this new book would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the author’s previous works, nonetheless, he does what he set out to do, draw a line from the science of it all to the poetics of it all.

There is a gimmick, and a progressive statement in these poems. What one would assume is highly exclusive , impersonal suddenly lends itself to being potentially inclusive. That science is as accessible and misunderstood as poetics.

Poetry for years has been ruined and torn down by critics. Not since the beat generation or perhaps ever again will there be poetry heroes. What Rogal is attempting is not becoming a hero, but using his power to promote new angles for poetry, it’s something he enjoys doing. There certainly is little hope for the genre as we close the century. William S. Burroughs used the extreme which gave us a new intelligent humour, insect characters, and the inanimate became animated.

These poetics use logic as humour, the idea that poetry has to be about handing a girl a bouquet of flowers will forever menace the face of the style, however, taking away the muse, or taking the muse hostage, silencing the predictable nature of the reader to the page, disengaging them from the cinematic spoon-fed familar traits of language may be exactly what we need.

The poem “The Lesson” proves the point clearest. Sports has never been a part of poetics, (especially the CFL) however with the logic and tension in this style of poetry, the rules of a sport, the relation of a son playing this game with his father all collide.

However obscure the disection of a poem can be, everyone remembers countless hours spent for grade eleven English, researching to exhaustive ends the meaning beneath Robert Frost’s poem ‘Fences’, now the science and behind the scenes mechanics are right there in the poems. Batteries included.

If any of the written genres are on death row certainly poetry is at the head of the line, if not already requesting a light for it’s last cigarette. Stan Rogal’s new direction in poetry isn’t entirely his, or new, but at least its not some shawl-wearing or pipe smoking cake bearer, trying to fatten us up/ smoke us out with their new brand of spiral bound cook book poems from the heart.

Coach house books is one of the small press publishing houses in Toronto. It is also one of the most advanced in terms of format, running on-line versions of newly released books to spark interest in printed formats. While many would suggest that this demeans if not inhibits actual print book sales, it does allow the relationship between artists and reader to become more intimate. Pages from a new book can be culled on command (at their site).

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