If all goes as planned for local poet and Alberta College of Art and Design writing instructor Derek Beaulieu, fledgling scribes across Calgary will soon be seen loudly tapping away at portable typewriters in public places.
By Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald.
They will be on the CTrain. In coffee shops. In the class room. Just about anywhere you would see fledgling writers tapping silently away on laptops.
“We are going to have that sound back in the culture again,” says Beaulieu, in an interview at a typewriter-free coffee shop last week. “We are going to have that sound in the classroom. I’m going to tell them no laptops and no iPads in the classroom, only manual typewriters. All their notes are going to have be done that way, and yes they are going to have to hand them in. They are going to be doing poetry, they are going to be doing prose.”
While all this might sound avant-garde and far afield from what many would consider traditional instruction for creative writing, it fits with Beaulieu’s own impressive canon of work as a writer and the theories that guide it. He has earned acclaim locally and internationally for cheerfully breaking rules when it comes to poetry. Even in Calgary, a hot spot for the avant-garde, Beaulieu’s work is aggressively experimental. Earlier this year, Wilfrid Laurier University Press released Please, No More Poetry, which found Mount Royal English instructor Kit Dobson putting together an anthology of Beaulieu’s work, which stretches back to the 1990s and includes nine books and countless pieces in magazines and chapbooks.
The title poem was written as a “manifesto” for a Vancouver magazine a few years back. It was meant to be a less-than-subtle nudge to his fellow bards, encouraging them to think more about expanding poetry than adhering to its old rules.
Among the withering observations contained within are “In poetry we celebrate mediocrity and ignore radicality” and “all bad poetry springs from genuine feelings” and “having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publications.”
“I want our community of writers and of poets to push this art form forward,” says Beaulieu. “I don’t see poetry as where we go to be told comforting stories or to have the same old words told back to us. I would like poetry to be challenging itself, to be pushing itself and to be finding new ways of expressing and using language in a way that is akin to experimental astrophysics, where scientists don’t just create work for consumption, they also try to theorize what comes next.”
Which should give some context to Beaulieu’s own body of work. In “That’s Not Writing”, another piece in the collection, Beaulieu puts together 50 proclamations that he found through a Google search that start with the titular term. “That’s not writing, that’s plumbing” is one, which was apparently what Samuel Beckett said about William Burroughs. But most of the work isn’t so on the nose in presenting Beaulieu’s ideas. Please, No More Poetry contains a number of concrete or shape poems, where the visual aspects are just as, if not more, important than the words. In his 2011 book How to Write, Beaulieu “plagiarized” 10 short stories from various sources; basically treating words the way a DJ samples music. A few years ago, he created a representation of an issue of the Calgary Herald without using any text. He used different colours to represent the type of news that was being reported, recreating 124 pages of multi-coloured blocks for a piece that has been exhibited worldwide.
It all fits loosely into the category of conceptual art, something writer Russell Smith once cheekily described as “art that takes longer to read about than to witness.”
But it represents the sort of radical thinking that Beaulieu wants to pass on to his students with the typewriter. Of course, the problem with using an antiquated remnant from the past is that they tend to be antiquated. So far, Beaulieu has only secured seven manual typewriters. He reckons he needs 35. But he hopes more will be donated, with the idea that the collection can be used for future classes as well.
So what if, to play devil’s advocate, a young student has scant interest in expanding the boundaries of poetry and simply wants to learn how to write like Shakespeare or Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings or Kanye West?
Well, the nuts and bolts of writing are still part of the course, he says. But Beaulieu does not see a contradiction in encouraging young poets to be forward-looking in how they approach their art, while simultaneously forcing them to use an outdated machine to create it. In fact, it all makes strange sense, at least in a poetic, avant-garde kind of way.
“By using dead technology, but using these machines that are outside, we are in fact learning how we interface with the tools we have now,” Beaulieu says. “Students don’t look to their iPad and their cellphone as productive artistic spaces because they are too close. These are not paint brushes, these are the extensions of their hand. So if you get them a few steps back from their machine and give them another one that does the same stuff, it gives them enough artistic distance to be able to use them as a tool. Then, once they learn how to use them as a tool and how to be productive around these type of machines, hopefully what they end up doing is bring that forward. (They will) use that same kind of awareness of the poetic possibilities of these tools and apply them to cellphones, iPads, your PlayStation 3. Whatever.”