Scrappy Young Poet: A Profile of Jordan Abel

This article was written by Jessica Kluthe, instructor of communications studies at MacEwan University. It was originally published on Kluthe’s blog on July 8, 2013.

I met Jordan Abel in 2005 in a creative non-fiction class during our undergrad degrees at the University of Alberta. I remember listening to Jordan read in 2005, and I feel proud to know such a talented, driven writer. I’ll never forget those stucco walls and that poorly lit classroom in the Humanities building where it all began.

Since then, Jordan has gone on to develop an impressive bio: he completed an MFA at University of British Columbia. He has been published all over the place—from Geist to filling Station. He was the poetry editor for PRISM and now edits Poetry Is Dead magazine. He published his chapbook Scientia with above/ground Press early this year. He is engaged with all things pop culture – seriously, you can talk with him about anything – and somewhere in there he completed his forthcoming collection of poetry, The Place of Scraps with Talonbooks. The Place of Scraps tells readers of ethnographer Marius Barbeau, who, while aiming to protect First Nations cultures, actually participated in breaking them apart.

Kluthe: First, as a First Nations writer, as you worked on this project and explored this history, did you feel, in some ways, that you were able to pull these dismantled pieces of culture together – at least on the page? Or does your work strive to highlight this erasure?

Abel: When I first began writing The Place of Scraps, my original intention was to revisit the traditional First Nations stories and storytelling techniques that Marius Barbeau transcribed in his book, Totem Poles. But as I wrote my way through the project – especially once I began to investigate Marius Barbeau’s research methodologies and ethnographic intentions – I realized that there was another story in there that I had almost no choice but to tell. That story, of course, was the way in which Barbeau attempted to preserve First Nations culture (by relocating totem poles and potlatch items to museums) and simultaneously participated in dismantling First Nations culture with the very same actions. The resulting text, which was built primarily out of erasures, was a sincere attempt to replicate my process of understanding this truly complicated and unpopular moment in history.

The project, of course, did not turn out the way I had originally intended. The Place of Scraps turned into a book that was built entirely out of dismantled pieces and was not at all a revitalization of traditional First Nations storytelling. That being said, when those broken down pieces were read alongside each other, the whole project seemed to come together.

Abel submitted a Snap Scene to give us a sense of his work.

Kluthe: It seems to me, from the outside, that The Place of Scraps would have clear connections to post-modernism. What is inherently cultural? Is our cultural identity made up of these artifacts/objects that we use to create meaning and in that, create culture? Is culture a performative accomplishment? What did you discover?

Abel: I imagine that most people would find a connection between The Place of Scraps and postmodern, avant-garde, or experimental poetry. And they would be right. As a writer, I don’t really have that much input on this kind of classification. But, if I did, I would choose to describe my work as post-avant, the main difference between the avant-garde and the post-avant being that the avant-garde was interested in inspiring a revolution in how we write and read. The post-avant recognizes the widespread influence and acceptance of avant-garde aesthetics and is no longer interested in revolution.

I’m very intrigued by your questions about culture, and about what culture is comprised of. The Place of Scrap_s was absolutely an exploration of cultural identity – which, for me, was formed in equal parts by totem poles, empty space, and books. When I began writing _The Place of Scraps, I had so many questions about my cultural and traditional background that I was genuinely interested in answering. So I turned to books. Specifically, I turned to Marius Barbeau’s books. He had recorded many traditional First Nations stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been written down (First Nations cultures rely heavily on oral storytelling traditions). For me, Barbeau’s work was an entry point to a cultural identity I never had the chance to connect with. And the more I read, the more I became immersed in a cultural understanding that was entirely textual. In Barbeau’s work there were so many glimpses of First Nations culture that can no longer be seen or are no longer talked about. Even the totem poles, which continue to have a physical presence, took on a new significance.

Kluthe: I know from your website that you’re interested in how online technology is making some new literatures possible. What are some interesting projects that you’ve come across? What about out-of-date technologies? Do they have a role?

Abel: One of the projects that I’m the most excited about is this project by Kenneth Goldsmith called “Printing Out the Internet.” The basic idea is that anyone that wants to get involved can print out a few pages from anyplace on the internet and send it to some gallery in Mexico. For me, the beauty of this project is that it involves everyone. If you’ve been following Goldsmith’s work, you’ll probably also feel a sense of catharsis. In a way, all of his writing has been leading up to this moment in one way or another. And, now that that moment has arrived, we can all take part.

Out-of-date technologies definitely still play a role in contemporary poetic practice. derek beaulieu’s work often utilizes printing and typesetting technology that hasn’t been used professionally in decades. The result is often astounding and uniquely characterized.

That being said, I think I’m probably more vocal about new technologies and applications in post-avant in writing because I am a complete poetry geek. But, to be truthful, I am equally interested in every kind of poetry and every kind of poetic process. My own writing is deeply indebted to the lyrical traditional – specifically, to the kind of minimalism on display in Phyllis Webb’s Naked Poems. And, in my mind, my writing attempts to balance the best aspects of lyricism with the best aspects of conceptual writing.

Kluthe: Do you have some events planned for the launch of The Place of Scraps? And, importantly, will there be a reading in Edmonton?

Abel: I’ve got some ideas but nothing concrete yet. I’m also editing the Sound Issue for Poetry Is Dead magazine, which has a similar launch date to The Place of Scraps. So I suspect that we might launch both together. But, I would love to come back to Edmonton to launch this book. I began writing The Place of Scraps in Edmonton, and it seems fitting that I should find my way back there sooner or later.

Kluthe: Are you working on another book length project? If so, what can you tell us about it?

Abel: I’m working on a book called Inju_n. Well, actually, the book is done and will be published sometime in the future, but the final details haven’t been solidified yet. The book itself is conceptual writing, but, unlike most conceptual writing, the concept is not immediately visible. Part of the reading process for _Injun is discovering the concept and discovering what the book is actually about. But I will say that it’s a kind of sequel to The Place of Scraps.