Luciano Iacobelli's The Examined Life (Guernica Editions) mixes poetry and imagery to create an immersive, emotional experience that blends philosophy with poetics. By turns playful, thoughtful, and intense, the book's uniquely blended approach to communicating meaning through the visual and the textual makes for an exciting, innovative whole.
We're pleased to welcome Luciano to Open Book today to talk about The Examined Life. He tells us about using image to extend his written work, rather than illustrate it, the relationship between poetry and philosophy, and the Toronto cafés where you might catch a glimpse of him writing his next book.
How did you arrive at this title for the collection? What does The Examined Life mean to you?
The title is based on a quote from Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Two of my greatest passions are Poetry and Philosophy, and although the forms are distinctly different, they share one characteristic, they both investigate and examine life.
Poetry approaches life more directly and intuitively, whereas philosophy approaches it through reason, but even philosophers understand that Reason like the human heart has reasons Reason cannot know. As objectively as it tries to present itself, philosophy is motivated by the same mysteries and emotions that motivate poetry. So I decided to unite my passions and write a book that attempts to extract the poetry from philosophy.
You engage with philosophical themes and schools in the collection. How do you view the relationship between philosophy and poetry?
In my mind poetry and philosophy have always been linked. Even when a poem lacks philosophical content, there is some philosophical overview that informs the form or structure of the work. In my case, the content and the overview can shift from poem to poem. One piece can have a Platonic perspective and another piece can be existentialist or even post-modern in its conviction. Adhering to the notion of “negative capability” (Keats’ idea that a poet should be free to hold contradictory ideas at the same time) I am loyal to all schools. If I find the idea beautiful, I embrace it.
For a while now, I have been particularly focused on what philosophy has to say about language and its possibilities. Many thinkers have been concerned with the plasticity of language, and how it can be stretched into greater versatility. They are also interested in exploring the connection between language and consciousness, how an expanded language can actually result in an expansion of consciousness. As a poet, I try to stretch language to the best of my ability, and in doing so I hope to rewire my own consciousness (my own internal nature) along with the reader’s. I think the best poetry does not reflect on past or existing conditions, but looks forward to a better future condition by reinventing human nature through reinvention of language.
There's a strong visual and concrete element at play here. How do you craft pieces that have visual aspects? Tell us a little about the illustrations in The Examined Life.
Yes the book has a strong visual component to it, and some people have criticized it for looking too busy. But the so-called “busyness” is essential, because not only am I trying to depict thoughts, I am trying to capture their movement. Pythagoras brilliantly observed “a thought is an idea in transit”; and so I graphed the thought movement in the way I laid out and arranged the text, using different fonts and font sizes, line breaks, word breaks, repetition, empty spaces, images.
I used a simple Paint program to design the images, which accounts for the sometimes rough and unresolved nature of the graphics, but the effect is deliberate; I wanted the pictures to reflect the rough and unresolved nature of thinking.
It is interesting that you refer to the images as illustrations, and although some of them actually illustrate the content of the text, most of them do not. They are not to be regarded as illustrations, but as continuation of text. The pictures are loaded with content that cannot be expressed linguistically, and they represent a point where language has to return to its pictographic roots in order to convey the feelings and ideas that need to be expressed. The pictographic moments in the book signify a breach in the text, where the text can no longer continue at the word level but has to turn back to more basic and immediate form of expression.
Where do you write most often? What does your writing space, if you have one, look like and what does a typical writing day consist of?
My apartment is only for “vegging out” and cocooning. I am comatose when I am at home, so I can only write in café’s. My two favourite spots are at the Nova Era on College and Shaw and the Second Cup at Bloor and Lippincott. I need the background noise of voices and music. I usually sit near a window so I can look up and see what is happening on the street I can only write during the day, and there is no order or pattern to my writing routine. I can go for months without writing a word, and then a project will inspire me and I can be at it everyday for a few weeks. When I do write, it is never for two or three hours at a time.
Are you able to read while working on a lengthy project? If so, what did you find yourself reading while writing The Examined Life and how do you feel your reading affected the collection?
I am always reading something whether I am writing or not. There’s no rhyme or reason to what I read, but it is mostly poetry, literary fiction or philosophy. I am always buying books, so there are many books on my shelves vying for my attention at any given time, but during the writing of The Examined Life I was exclusively reading and rereading some of the major texts of western philosophy. It was the reading that fueled the writing. I started with the reading first, and then after recording a few poetic responses and reactions to what I was reading, I realized I was writing a book.
What will you be working on next?
As a result of writing The Examined Life, I continued to experiment with combining graphics and language. I am currently working on a book entitled Noctigraphics. In this work, I aim to capture “night consciousness” or how the mind operates at night. I particularly try to graph in or draw the kind of interference the mind encounters while working at its thoughts. Once again, the book is about thought, but this time I go further in picturing the static that obstructs language and thinking.
Luciano Iacobelli is a Toronto based poet, visual artist, and publisher. He is the author of numerous chapbooks and three full length books of poetry: The Angel Notebook (2007), Painting Circles (2011), and Book of Disorders (2011). He collaborated with Jens kohler and Roberto Marra on The Emu Dialogues (2015). He is also the co-owner of Quattro Books and sole owner of Lyricalmyrical Press.