By Anita Malhotra
Max Middle is the pen name of Mark Robertson, an Ottawa-based poet and founder of The A B Series, a poetry reading series that features experimental, sound and performance poetry from Canada and around the world. Anita Malhotra interviewed Max on Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 at Chez Lucien, a bustling pub in Ottawa’s Byward Market.
AM: Before you actually got into writing poetry, did you have an interest in sound? Were you particularly aware of your sound environment?
MM: I’m not active with music at the moment but have a background in it, specifically keyboards, percussion and drums. I guess I started playing percussion in the school band in Grade 7 and playing drum set, and later on playing drums in rock bands. So yes, that’s an obvious area for the merging of sound and poetry. You’ve got percussion and poetry, where do those two things meet? Because you can make percussive sounds with your voice, and those sounds could be considered either musical in nature or they could be considered literary in nature, depending on how you present them.
AM: There’s a rhythmic sense in your sound poetry, in your performance. Is that also coming from music, or is that coming more from your writing?
MM: Both. There’s that merge, right, between a form of rhythm that is innate to poetry and that rhythm that is innate to music, and the two don’t have to be strangers to one another. So I can see myself as blending musical rhythm and linguistic/literary rhythms to create a hybrid. So it’s not just rhythm, of course, but as with music, it’s one component in the mix.
AM: Tell me briefly about your literary history – your first ventures into poetry.
MM: Writing poetry began in high school days and there were some good moments in the creative writing class and there was even actually a little bit of poetry that was published in the school paper at the time. And we had a poetry seminar in Grade 13 with a poet Patrick White – who was poet laureate of Ottawa at the time – this was in the spring of 1989. So then I did a bit of writing after high school days, for a couple of years, and then took a break and started it up again in the last 6 or 7 years.
AM: Does your poetry now resemble the poetry that you were creating in high school?
MM: No, no, it’s quite different. I educated myself in between. I took a long break from writing and did a lot of self-study and self-teaching as well as formal education. And that sort of naiveté, I guess, will forever be lost.
AM: What kinds of things did you study?
MM: I read poetry mostly on my own, but I studied art history in university. I have a degree in art history, but I also did a B.A. general first and I did some linguistic courses as part of that. Linguistics helps you to understand the mechanisms of speech and human vocals, so it helped to inform me in terms of how to produce sound poetry by having more of an understanding of how speech works and the physical aspect of speech.
AM: When did Mark Robertson become Max Middle?
MM: Sometime in 2003 the name just came and sort of popped into my mind. I had been writing some stuff, and was thinking, “Well, I should get around to publishing it.” For whatever crazy reason, I decided, “Why don’t I publish this stuff under a pen name?” So I published virtually everything that I wouldn’t want anybody to know about under that name.
AM: Why did you choose that particular name?
MM: It’s just kind of an oxymoron, you know. Max, Middle, they’re like opposites – the medium and the maximum, the extreme of something, and then of course the alliteration.
AM: What do you personally get out of writing poetry and performing poetry? How does it feed you?
MM: It’s sort of a mysterious thing. When you’re reading a poem or performing anything, especially in a poetry sphere, there tends to be a very intimate connection with the audience, and you know when you’re reaching them and when you’re not. It’s kind of palpable what the energy is like. It doesn’t really depend on how much you’ve practiced reading the thing – if you practiced reading it at all – or if there are a lot of people there or a few people there. There’s this one idiosyncratic kind of moment with reading where there’s an energy and it takes on a form. It’s very ephemeral. The other part of that question is writing. I don’t know if it does feed me or if it’s feeding off of me!
AM: Why do you do it?
MM: Why poetry? Seems like an appropriate question to ask and it does get asked a lot. Poetry is a central art form and was such in the popular imagination until recently. Poets could fill up the stadiums of their times – think Dylan Thomas – and that’s not that long ago. It’s not in the realm of popular culture today, but perhaps that’s a saving grace for an art form.
AM: What led you to found The A B Series?
MM: It was a fairly sort of unambitious thing to start with. There were a few people coming through town, and they asked, “Can you set up a reading for us?” And in fact, I organized a few readings, but less grand than what The A B Series was to become. And then The A B Series started on Nov. 1, 2007, so it’s just over three years old now – we’ve done three full seasons of autumn to spring events.
AM: What does the name signify?
MAX: The alphabet, I guess. A bad pun: A, B, C. I have a Google alert for “A B Series” and it turns up all kinds of things like ab series exercises and mechanical parts.
AM: What kind of poetry does the series feature?
MAX: It’s experimental, sound, and performance poetry. All of those categories are very broad, so we can do just about anything. There is an experimental tradition here in Canada, so that’s where we focus – featuring people like Christian Bök, Lisa Robertson, Jeramy Dodds, Christopher Dewdney, and Gerry Shikatani, and all kinds of other people in the Canadian experimental tradition.
There is a sound poetry tradition, but it’s somewhat esoteric and has all sorts of different branches. The practitioners are scattered all over the globe, so we can only present a small small slice of it. And then performance poetry, of course, can include any kind of poetry that’s intended primarily for the performance context.
There is, of course, the very popular spoken word genre, where practitioners for the most part memorize their work. There are series and festivals out there that are meant specifically for that, but we do our part and present some spoken word poetry.
AM: Who is the audience for the series?
MM: I guess our core audience, to which we owe a certain debt of gratitude, is the core poetry-going audience in Ottawa. There are a couple dozen members that have been very good about supporting the series, and we’re grateful to them for being so consistently in the audience.
And we get all kinds of other people coming out to certain events that appeal to certain groups more than others. We had 130-odd people for Jaap Blonk, and some of them were from a musical background, then there were people from the Netherlands expatriate community, so we draw from a cross-section. Ideally, the events are interesting to everybody who lives in the region. We try to present them in central venues and make them as accessible as we can.
AM: How do you finance the series?
MM: It’s partly funded by admission at the door, which is a fraction of what it takes to run it, and then primarily government arts funding agencies as represented by the City of Ottawa, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council of the Arts, and we have some support from various other organizations like embassies.
AM: What are your plans for the future of your series?
MM: We’ll probably get a little bit more ambitious with our programming, have more international artists and artists that combine music and sound. Probably branch out a bit in having some more talks. We’ll probably have artists yet to be determined primarily working in the sound poetry idiom, but also in related fields like new music and working a variety of vocal technique, people who are working in new music, from around the world. So we’re looking forward to that.