“Psychically, process was a funnel . . .” an Interview with Caroline Szpak

By James Lindsay

Caroline Szpak

Teasing language until it threatens to go ballistic, Slinky Naive, Caroline Szpak’s debut collection, is sheer sonic joy; a sensual, linguistic hodgepodge worthy of Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Legris with a zeal for the common place: “Pinched nerves, bunched newspapers, and unlit storefronts are some examples.” (From “Planet of Things”) Playful and difficult, or, rather, being difficult by way of play (i.e. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”), that makes the most sense the more you hand yourself over to it. Here, English, Polish, and Latin schmooze so casually that on first glance, one might think they’re lovers, or at least bosom buddies. After a handful of chapbooks, Slinky Naïve is a rewarding full collection from one of Canada’s best unsung poets.


James Lindsay:

I was lucky enough to be a guest reader at the launch for Slinky Naive and your reading blew me away!  At times you looked absolutely euphoric; at others serious and contemplative. It was really gratifying that this spectrum matched the intensity of effect I felt while reading your book. I also remember you telling me that you had rewrote many of the poems several times before being satisfied with them. So I have to ask about what your experience was like while writing Slinky Naive. Psychically speaking, how much of yourself did you pour into the process?

Caroline Szpak:

Psychically, process was a funnel, and in the book I play with the significations of that word as a symbolic anastrophe, an upending or inversion of a bell. When writing, experiences of neurological tests and images slid through the openness of the psyche, the wide part of the funnel, before being distilled on the page (I'm brazenly calling this alembic pentameter). Whereas the book-as-object held by the reader is the bell, its mouth open in the opposing direction, towards land, releasing resonance with its clapper—structure of stem where the funnel, unless guiding or filtering foreign material, maintains emptiness.

The ambiguous boundaries of the self, cohering syllabic ontology—78% of my semiotic self, 22% of my symbolic self (marginal estimates), reclaimed through reconfiguration, figures of I stet on the page not the I going in, or the I doing the writing. Not extension, or remove, but a subjunctive self qua iteration. The space of writing, in reflection, both dimensional and breathless (i.e. anaphoric/anabolic, or at least a deathrate, fur-feeling).

I wrote a book that examined a prognostic neurological disassembling while my cells underwent the black and white abjection of examination and my alienation in the face of that. I questioned if there was a self without body, as I felt a pronounced demarcation from mine. If parts of the self had been (clinically) deleted, it was, in measurable metaphysics, Self in Erasure, and maybe in this way all the poems were erasure poems. If, by reflection of cellular logic, I funnelled less of myself at the end of the book than I had at the start.



Does the funnel ever become a filter for language? Here’s what I’m getting at: I’m thinking about how you speak at least two languages (English and Polish) and I’m thinking about how those languages appear on the page in Slinky Naive; how they both start at the wide part of the funnel as different thoughts, or different aspects of the same thought, before distilling into something new for the reader. Maybe another way to put this could be, what language do you think in and is there a translation between the thought and the page that creates something new or unexpected?


I like the idea of a funnel language, which is a bit how I view English itself. Unless in the process of composition, much of thought feels a metacognitive stream of prelinguistic strata, and much of articulation is aleatory, down to augmentations of privilege, possibility. Thought is language-independent, another sense or in a sense another body, the subconscious body (the body is the subconscious). So, maybe not what I think in, but exist (within), converge.

Translation is the ephemeral, illusive/elusive art of bridging realities through synthesis of subsumed lexical contagions. There’s a sense of violence in inserting Polish words into a poem otherwise composed in English. A violence of narrowing by the assimilated constructs of English onto the Polish words being slotted in flagged alterity. The act felt like skinning a satirical mimicry of verbal dissolution, denouncing one naturalized linguistic order for the imperium of another, a two-way magnification rather than a cancelling out. The ferocity was returned in the other direction through the caustic brute of their rhyme—the aura of rescripting into the notional coherence of a sequential ideal, the implied diadem of English.

Early in the writing of the book’s “Poland poems,” a reader questioned why I included Polish words. They were perceived as a hindrance to reading. Without an initial understanding of the language, one had to pause to “look them up,” which was deemed alienating as it compromised the line’s unmediated conveyance of meaning. This cognitive disruption was in part my aim of decentralization—the tension in the poems arises in part from this antagonistic asymmetry. Dislocation of English by necessity evokes a mirroring of othered structuration, but also, when reading, I do as a matter of course look up words of which I’ve no previous knowledge. This act is discovery and accretion to the microbial facet and is always a pleasure and language-independent. Why (for an English speaker) should pausing while reading to define an unknown word encountered in English or perhaps Latin be a privileged eclecticism than the translation of a word from a language like Polish, or German, or Arabic, or Hebrew? In which direction should discursive dynamics flow? With poetry, I sometimes think of how Picard approached the Tamarians, the fictional race in Star Trek who spoke in a metaphor-based language. He camped out overnight on their planet, in faith engaged a Tamarian in an allegorical battle he didn’t know the risks or purpose of when he entered, his “arms wide open.” His receptiveness to the unknown and willingness to absorb this alien linguistic construct even as he encountered it, as well as his attendant bewilderment, ultimately fostered a capacity for understanding and communication previously thought unattainable. Loosely speaking, looking at a dictionary seems a much simpler route towards what could in the reader be deemed an analogous quest.

Language is both reed and adoption, the later quality perhaps especially relevant to mutations of English, historically an imperial permeable membrane. A Borg-like language of compromised airs. To your previous question, I spoke of the mirroring of a bell/funnel. Here the geographic mirroring of place (names) has relevance. Zgorzelec in south-western Poland is reflected (qua transcription of aurality—note the pronunciations) in the German town of Görlitz on the other side of Lusatian Neisse river, which the Polish call Nysa. There’s even a small bridge over this body of water that connects these two places. In the poem “Zgorzelec,” perhaps in ahistorical aphasia, the speaker loses the word for “doll,” then for “cage” and subconsciously situates these in a mother tongue. Thus externalized/localized, the meaning of the words (doll/cage) in their dualism (maternalism/paternalism) clash in rhyme (lalka/klatka). There in counterpoint are the codes of their alienation. The distillation, or turning away from.

All Lit Up - Slinky Naive


The thing about the Tamarians’ metaphor-based language is that is befuddles the universal translator that the Enterprise and her crew rely on for communication. Their dictionary, like ours, works on a word to word basis while the Tamarians use allegories from their own mythology, which comes with its own set of subjective baggage that dictionaries aren’t aware of. You said, “There’s a sense of violence in inserting Polish words into a poem otherwise composed in English.” Is that an antagonist felt by you, the reader, or both? For the reader who does not speak Polish, these are disjaring moments, ones in which we reach for dictionaries for comfort and clarification. But what is it for you, someone who has subjective baggage with the language, to place Polish into an otherwise English-speaking poem? How would you feel seeing the same into a poem that you did not compose?


The unspoken lattice was a scrambling of “universal translation” (if it can be said that there is such a thing) to corrupted conceits. For example, at times my poems or, for a more comprehensive distortion, the apriorism of English. The need to reach for dictionaries or otherwise orient oneself through subsequent research is not confined to encounters with texts in languages foreign to a reader’s initial understanding, is my point. Reading a poem written in English would not preclude a native speaker from happening upon an unfamiliar word or use. Some of my poems include Latin—medical, or scientific terms. On either side of the temporal writer/reader divide, language doesn't simulate in isolation, the crosshairs of poetry perhaps paradoxically least of all.

The violence of interpolation, incision, transplant, was referential in composition. My poems enlist both implant and bypass and I don't feel that there's an immanent dualism here though there is brutality to such linguistic decontextualization. You’re ostensibly undermining framework dell'arte. Words are perforce slippery (excerpted) organs, and slips are both infiltration and luxury. The silk and subjectivity of transatlantic baggage, the subjugation of language or how it mines us (is both spectra and spectral).

I don’t feel I can presuppose or speak to a reader’s experience in this way however. Some might find the appearance of the Polish words (like the conterminous geography of Neisse flowing into Nysa) a disturbance of contiguous order, or perhaps impish or gleeful, like undertows of Carroll, the slithy toves. Tamarian, Jabberwocky, Elvish, slang, our dynamical fictionalized systems. Apart from a general charge of curiosity, how I’d feel encountering something similar in a poem I didn’t write would be a function of the poem in question, its execution (poetry is where language dies for regeneration), in broader cultural and metalinguistic contexts.



The language that you seem drawn to--or at least what I hear in your writing-- reminds me at times of the language of theory or academic writing, but at others it seem entirely more playful and nonchalant. Perhaps I’m wrong here, and please don’t take that as a disparaging remark, because you have an amazing ability to exhibit the music of seemingly opposing styles. Could comment about what kind of language you are attracted to, what kind of language you bring to your poetry?


Language that inverts itself, like an x-ray, exile, or sugar. Inversion as another order, I don't mean reordering or disorder—an internal preorder of metaphor, of soma/self (compound language, or the language of compounds). A paradigmatic order. Oneiric, unconscious order. As with maps, language feels like rescaling or reduction, a simmering down on a burner, a distillation. A [B]eing cannot be reduced to attributes (Heidegger), and I’m not sure if language itself can. The defamiliarized language of strange attractors. Language that is unstable or presenting its mask of stability—to invert Wallace Stevens (“Connoisseur of Chaos”): these two things are not one. Language with charge of disequilibrium: ionic language that has lost something and expresses that loss in its frames, its swinging doors and backed valves, or language that gained something, a fractal autonomy from its search and caesura, and the immediacy of the found, or of being found. Here the pretence of looking at language through telescopes, not through the materiality of its telescopes. The acronym ION, In Other News—language of diversion, the supine pluralistic or jaw generic, the self-similarity of the unsaid. Language that is inoperable but not finite, zero stardirt of the voluntary, a socket taxonomy on sheet, apart from you, withheld, confronted with itself.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.