A quirky chat with JonArno Lawson

Tonight JonArno Lawson will be taking part in an event called Poetry Bash! with fellow poets Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Jonathan Ball, and Sue Goyette in Winnipeg at Thin Air. The event showcases some of today’s wittiest poets, and JonArno Lawson definitely fits the bill.

JonArno has made a name for himself in North America as a master of sound. His first book with the Porcupine’s Quill, A Voweller’s Bestiary, was a lipogram. A lipogram is a composition in which the author systemically omits a certain letter or certain letters of the alphabet from his work. In A Voweller’s Bestiary, JonArno Lawson challenged himself to write an entire collection in this form, featuring myriad creatures in the animal kingdom. In his most recent book, Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, JonArno Lawson is up to the same tricks, placing heteronyms and heterographs in playful opposition, creating poems that literally tumble off your tongue.

If you’re missing JonArno tonight (what do you mean you didn’t buy plane tickets out to Winnipeg for this event?), you have a second chance to see this wordsmith in the flesh in Toronto at the Maizal Quesadilla Cafe for the launch of Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box on Saturday, October 13, at 2:30pm. He’ll be joined by the book’s illustrator, artist and musician Alec Dempster, and by PQL, of course!

For a tiny taste of what’s in store in Down in the Bottom, check out my interview with JonArno Lawson below….

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box

Down in the Bottom by JonArno launches October 13.

The Porcupine’s Quill: Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is a very fun collection. What was the most fun part of writing it?

JonArno Lawson: I think coming up with the little bits of lines that the poems evolved from–coming up with (or hearing) a chance phrase, or sometimes an idea, and then filling it out. Working with mostly four line rhymes kept them very compact, and I’m often impatient and inattentive when I write, so keeping the pieces short helped me focus.

PQ: Do you have an example of a phrase you turned into a poem in Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box that particularly pleased you?

JAL: I can take some good examples from “Snow White,” to show how something like that evolves for me. I like the phrase “Origin unknown”–because it has a gentle sound, and it alludes to something mysterious. I picture a dark train station, and a sinister (or vulnerable looking) orphan, or object. Which is where “Don’t sit with it on your own” comes from. The second I hear “origin unknown” I can’t help thinking “What was the origin?”–it starts the hunter or detective in me thinking … but then I think, what’s another way of saying that? In simple terms–“I don’t know where it’s from.” There’s no mystery in that phrase at all. It’s dull in contrast. You might say it about a shoe you find on your front lawn that doesn’t belong to you. But the first phrase came out as a couplet, so this one demands its own couplet, and becomes “be careful, don’t succumb”–a variation on the first warning. And then I think–what’s the most complicated, over-the-top way of saying the same thing, and luckily English has “indeterminate provenance.” A beautiful phrase–you picture a tacky dollar store vase in a room full of Biedermeier furniture. And then you can reverse the words to get “If its provenance is indeterminate/better check for a worm in it.” Which finally leads us to the possibility of Snow White and the dangerous apple.

So it builds from playing with a phrase I like the sound of, to finding synonymous phrases, to matching all of that with a recognizable story that completes the picture–but it all happens spontaneously, and for each poem it happens differently; it’s lucky when it happens that quickly and easily. For any one that works well, like this, there are at least a dozen that fall apart as I’m thinking about them, or working on them. A few survive that stage, of not being easy, if there’s something that still seems worthwhile–those ones I’ll set aside, sometimes for a year, sometimes for twenty, and then usually they come together quickly the next time I look at them.

PQ: I found that despite the varying, playful content of the poems in Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, there was a good through line in the collection, which began with “Our Imaginary Selves.” Here you take the story of Noah and the Ark and turn it completely on its head. In addition to all the animals that Noah saves from the flood, you imagine all the imaginary animals–gryphons, dwarves, elves–that didn’t make the cut. Instead, they must be preserved in our imagination. Your collection does this repeatedly: turning the world we thought we knew upside down, whether it be familiar fairy tales, nursery rhymes, or as simple as the distinction between top and bottom (“The Top”). Why do you chose to write poems with this focus?

JAL: The world keeps surprising me (maybe because I’m impatient and inattentive!); things so often aren’t what they seem at first. Generally this seems to be because almost everyone and everything is in a constant state of change–so maybe things actually were what they seemed, but by the time I glance back, they’ve changed.

I remember I had a dream once where I was in a tree–I was afraid of falling–and then suddenly gravity reversed and I fell upwards into the sky. My dream was capturing an emotional reality–every day has surprises.

PQ: Your poems are so amusing–especially when read out loud–because you have so much fun with language. Each poem is like a tongue-twister with heteronyms and heterographs placed in direct opposition. You really draw attention to the subtle differences in spelling and pronunciation that make all the difference when it comes to communication. What appeals to you about writing poems with such vigorous wordplay?

JAL: I remember when I was little having a sense of panic sometimes when people spoke to me, realizing suddenly that I had no idea what they’d said. I’d heard the words, but they didn’t mean anything, as if I were listening to another language.

Sound and rhythm seemed to separate from meaning sometimes, out of the blue, and I wonder if this is at the root of it for me. Trying to master a sort of panic over the problems with language by tying it all together more tightly–words that are confusing, that are almost the same but aren’t the same, and how important (and bewildering) those differences can be–I’m trying to make it more comprehensible to myself.

PQ: As a parent, what do you see in your collection that would be appealing to or beneficial for kids?

JAL: Maybe it’s what you said above, the sense that the world can be turned upside down at any moment, and that it helps you survive if you can swim along with (and not against) that. And that language itself can be very helpful with this reality, if you learn (or just continue) to play with it.

PQ: You have written poetry for adults as well as for children. How do your adult collections differ from your children’s ones? How is the experience of writing for adults different?

JAL: I think probably some of the subject matter–what can be expressed about the intensity of certain kinds of relationships. If you’re lucky (or make an effort) as an adult, you can make use of a wider range of experiences to understand yourself, and that’s not as easy to convey, always, in a straightforward way.

On the other hand, I think a large number of poems in either set of books could be read by either audience. A minority are really just for one group or the other.

PQ: You talk about the difficulty of conveying the complexity of adult experiences. I think this is something a lot of writers can relate to. Is there an experience in particular you had a great deal of difficulty portraying the past? Is there an experience you were very happy to have finally pinned down?

JAL: My wife (we met in high school) had a very different approach to life than mine. Generally speaking, she dealt with things directly and didn’t brood on things. While I worried a lot about whether life was fair (to me, if not to anyone else), she was busy actually being fair to others and making the best of things. I had a lot to learn from her! But it took me a while to realize that, consciously. So after 25 years of knowing her, and of trying to put it into words–what I had to learn from her, and why my way didn’t work, I was finally able to say it, like this (this is from There Devil, Eat That, Pedlar Press, 2011):


You’re driven by desire
I’m drifting on a whim
You’re heading for the centre
I’m clinging to the rim
You keep growing brighter
I keep going dim

You go I stop
You lift I drop
You stare I blink
We’re out of sync

And when it’s time to dive straight in
You won’t need to stop to think
You’ll dive in and swim and swim –
I’ll slip off the edge and sink.

You can read it as comedy, or as something sad–but to me it finally clarified something about our relationship that I had trouble expressing clearly (until writing this).

PQ: You have nine collections published to date. What are your plans for the future? Do you have a particular project in the works?

JAL: I’m working on a memoir called “Horse Camp,” about a week I spent learning to ride a horse at a horrible little sleepover summer camp back in 1979. It’s about the greater world of horses too–something that’s come to fascinate me.

I’m also working on a book for Annick, but maybe I’m not supposed to talk about that? I’ll have to ask them.

And I have a book of poems (holiday oddities, curious thoughts and apocalyptic melancholia called Enjoy it While it Hurts) which comes out with Wolsak and Wynn next year. That’s mostly finished, but not quite, so I’m working on that as well.

JonArno Lawson

JonArno Lawson has written nine collections of poetry to date.

Many thanks to JonArno Lawson for agreeing to answer my questions. Don’t miss the launch of Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box October 13 at the Maizal Quesadilla Cafe!

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.