Van Gogh and Artaud: Quinn Stacey in Conversation with Gordon Lonethunder

Gordon Lonethunder

Gordon Lonethunder, whose poem "Branches Fleuries d'Amandier" appears in the Malahat's Summer 2018 issue, discusses Artaud's essay "The Man Suicided by Society," improvisation in writing, and how he built his poem from prose in his Q&A with Malahat editorial assistant Quinn Stacey.

 

Gordon Lonethunder is a painter and poet from the Sagkeeng First Nation. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Athabasca University. Long time tree hugger, and tree planter, reformed gang member, he spends his off hours counselling young adults at risk. This is his first published poem.

Did Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Branches Fleuries d’Amandier” influence the poem as it was being written, as a spark of inspiration, or as mirror for the poem’s themes? Was the painting in the front of your mind as you wrote the words? Does it relate to your poem in some other way?

To be fair, it wasn’t van Gogh, but Antonin Artaud’s essay, "The Man Suicided by Society" that I had read in the clink years ago doing a bit for B & E, that inspired the poem. The poem, and my life at that point. Suicided by Society. That is a phrase that rings true with most indigenous peoples, I think. I chose a few paintings by VG to use as poems. In this case, this painting is of white almond flowers on a blue background, and yet the poem may suggest darker themes. My hope was irony. 

Your insight that irony is suggested in the title opens the reading of the poem to a deeper level of interpretation. Do you consciously weave multiple streams of meaning into your poems, or is your process more improvisational? Does the juxtaposition of disparate images come naturally to you?

This is a great question. About weaving, I would say yes, of course. And I would say that automatically and naturally because, again, I have no literary background or community nor publication history or whatnot, so in effect most of the "shit" I have written lays about for months, sometimes years (I am 40), and it has only been recently, for some reason I can’t explain, that I felt it was good to try and "weave" things together and submit. Maybe it is something others feel or share, not sure. 
So just by, again, that separation of time, and the natural change that takes place over time, it changes the meaning once you go back to it, again maybe in a good way. I would also hope however that it comes off improvisational, as for me the best poems seem so. 

I submitted these poems simultaneously, and recently had them rejected by another Canadian magazine, and the editor felt obliged to rip them apart line by line and then, also, with some background on van Gogh and Artaud that my poem wasn’t "following." Although I appreciated the feedback, I found her suggestion that one couldn’t reinterpret, or improvise, in poems, a little difficult to swallow. That would be like suggesting that we cannot "rewrite" or "reintrepret" history, which is what we all know is going down with my own people’s history, and sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not so good, maybe. 

Still, I found the academic tone too much present, and that puritan Canadian attitude towards "right" and "wrong," or "truth" and, what’s the opposite? To be stifling and in reality, the opposite of diverse. So as much as I appreciate the "polished" final product, I like poems that come off a little improvised, spontaneous, beat, obtuse, indecipherable. And that it’s ok not to understand, and that it can also be a thrill.

Is the poem autobiographical? Did you live these events, or are they composite images? Do you feel any level of self-consciousness when tackling such intensely personal subject matters?

Autobiographical. My woman then was working the stroll and also addicted to painkillers and pot, and I was the same. This would have been a typical night coming home. I can’t say either of us were really ever there, but we’d always end up being there at the end of day. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if it matters. It was a time in our lives, and in my life. She chose to deal with it afterward differently, through photographs and photographic installations, and me in words and paint. Through this, I truly believe, we have both, in some small way, sublimated the process of living for, sadly, just another process. 

The lines describing her have such a well-drawn quality, is she a real person? If so, how would she feel about your portrayal of her in the poem? Does it matter what she, or anybody, thinks about what you write about them?

I believe this is a relevant but difficult question. I think if we start worrying about what someone "feels" or "thinks" about what someone else writes about them, we will have to regress to the same old Canadian themes, birds and flowers and nature. As an indigenous man, and as a cultural man, nature and the environment are important to me, of course, however I can’t think of the last time I was in a natural environment that wasn’t a built, man-made one. 

The nuances of personality, the psychology of behavior, sex and love, relationships, seem much more relevant, if touchy, over how the sky connects to the sea, which of course it doesn’t. People do crazy lovely things, and some fucked up things, the intellectualization, if that’s a real word, of those things is, for me, the unending task of turning an everyday mess into a painting or poem. 

There is a prose-like feel to the lines throughout. Did the poem evolve from a different work, take shape in editing, or come into being close to this final form?

As I mentioned in question one, this poem stems from a series of poems based on Antonin Artaud’s essay, "The Man Suicided by Society." The series runs to around eight pages, and you are right, there was an initial prose piece that the poems were scooped from. However, I have never really been interested in writing prose, and if you know the essay, it is highly irregular, much more poetic, verse like, than the reasonable, rational nature of what prose tends to be. For example, I believe it is impossible to have such a thing as non-fiction; everything written is separated from what actually took place by time and interpretation. Why fight it? As well, the life of van Gogh, so clichéd, still interrupted me with its dreamtime quality, and in conjunction with some of his work, too fucked up to be rationalized into prose.

This is your first published poem, congratulations! Do you think you learn more from being accepted, or rejected?

Great question, however I think I am not in the position to give much of a response. These were my first submitted poems. I have subsequently to this acceptance been rejected a few times from other magazines, though feel nothing about that but an "oh well" attitude. I am not convinced that publication is the answer, for me, or for what I am looking for, and am unsure if I would submit poems or artwork anywhere in the future. 

A major positive of being accepted for publication by a literary magazine is the experience of having your work edited by a skilled editorial team. Has this process given you a new perspective on your writing?

This is a little more difficult for me to answer as again I have no idea really what it means. However, based on what I received from that other magazine, I can’t see it right now as helpful to the writing process; it creates too many insecurities and doubts about whether or not you "got it right" or not, again whatever that means. I understand that publication can mean something in the right direction, however I do know a couple writers with 30 or more magazine publications who can’t find a book publisher for their work. It seems more like a stamp collection to me. And if you are not part of any literary community, who do you brag to about a poetry publication? I will look at this acceptance as a great thing personally, and will be very proud to solemnly gift my family with a copy, but you’ll have to forgive me if it means little else. 

Quinn Stacey

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