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Segue 11: Fall 2013  ||  Sean Howard


about the author


Sean Howard is the author of two collections of poetry, Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011). His poetry has been widely published in Canadian and international magazines, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 (Tightrope Books). Sean is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, researching nuclear disarmament issues and the political history of twentieth century physics.


about the work


Two of the three pieces—“shadowgraph 133” and “library cards”—form part of book-length experimental projects I allot regular time for. Each shadowgraph—and the project encompasses all 150 Nobel Physics lectures delivered (149 by men!) in the twentieth century—takes on average a week to write (allowing 3 hours or so per day), so it’s really a part-time job.

The “library cards” are far less onerous and time-consuming: I simply choose a book at random each time I visit the library at Cape Breton University, and see what poems emerge from a skim-reading. (It can take from minutes to hours for something to happen!)

And the "endpaper epigrams" were pretty much a spontaneous (and therapeutic) response to acute political depression!

I should perhaps say something about the basic experimental method and process behind the Shadowgraphs Project, as these poems are by far both the hardest and easiest pieces I’ve ever worked on. I recently explained it as follows in a web feature in the Canadian poetry magazine Arc: “The procedure—which I call ‘downlining’—is simple: hand writing the text (of the lecture) onto a series of 10-word x 10-word grids, jotting down any images or associations spontaneously occurring, then carefully and slowly reading down each of the lines (diagonally, too, if I want to; any way but linear). While I happily pocket any ‘free’ images or other gifts that appear, I also treat the scrambled text as material to meditate, transform and work freely on. The aim of the method is to combine the systematic rigor of William Burroughs’ cut-up technique with the free-flow of C.G. Jung’s deliberately unmethodical ‘method’ of active imagination, a kind of induced reverie comparable in some ways to Keats’s exercise of ‘negative capability.’ In this way (in theory, and in my own experience) the writer gains access to two hitherto unconscious levels (repressed, latent, unsuspected) of expression: his or her own and the text’s.”

One possible trap of working on a long series of poems using the same technique is an emerging “sameness” of voice and style: each poem has to be not only vibrant and alive in its own right but differently vital to the rest. With the Shadowgraphs, though, there was an extreme range of voices and styles—as physics moved through its twentieth century triumphs and torments—in play, and the main “trick” was using the technique to get inside the text to explore the spirit and usually unstated tensions of each lecture. And this is, I guess, a more generally applicable “rule:” let the words tell you what to say; don’t expect (or desire) to control them. As the British World War II poet Keith Douglas wrote: “Words are my instruments, not my servants.”

I love Joyce, who loved Blake, so I like poetic craft to be crafty, riddling, tricky. And, of course, intoxicating—a “drunken boat,” as Rimbaud said. And, when the ride gets scary, I try to remember Lorca’s confession: “I have lost myself in the sea many times.” You have to…


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