The Oil Industry isn't Muddying Up My Lyric: Vincent Colistro in conversation with J. Mark Smith

J. Mark SmithJ. Mark Smith talks with Malahat volunteer Vincent Colistro about his 2012 Open Season Award-winning poem, "Landscape with petroleum plant and sewage treatment facility" (issue #178, Spring 2012).

First off, Mark, I would like to congratulate you on scooping up top prize in this year’s Open Season Awards in the poetry category. Your poem, “Landscape with petroleum plant and sewage treatment facility” is a politically charged send-up of the traditional landscape poem, at once mournful and irreverent.

You cleverly subvert the loco-descriptive tradition by, instead of passively praising the landscape, troubling that kind of voyeurism. Do you think this is a necessary stance? With all the imminent dangers facing its muse—the natural environment—ought there be a passive loco-descriptive poetry anymore?

In truth, for a long time I hardly wrote anything but loco-descriptive poems.  Maybe not so many now; but still I doubt if I’m in much of a position to send up that tradition. I like the thought however that this one is something like an early 18th century river poem (without the heroic couplets).

I’m pretty fond of, or at least attached to, the place described in this poem.  I go for runs over that pedestrian bridge pretty regularly. There’s x-country skiing down there, if you don’t mind the smokestacks. I don’t think of it as a doomful, or dystopian landscape exactly. It’s what’s actually there at that spot in the North Saskatchewan river valley. (I guess the realtors and the coyotes come and go.) And what you can actually see there says a lot about the city around it.

What this poem’s setup suggests to me is an intrusion of the oil industry into the poetic sphere, as though it’s muddying up your lyric. Living in Alberta (as I presume you do) do you feel obliged as a poet to engage in this discussion? 

It’s not that the oil industry is muddying up my lyric, no. I’m more interested in how much of everyday life and of the things going on in the spaces we inhabit gets to be invisible to us, or unthought by us. It’s like the cloak of invisibility has gone down over them. Jacques Lacan has a lot of fun with the idea of civilizations and their sewage systems in one of his public lectures. Can’t have one without the other. Can’t have thinking and policy-making and social networking without sewage systems. The water treatment plant down at Gold Bar is apparently state of the art. It’s a brilliant system. The earth won’t manage with 7 billion people too well without ingenuity of this sort. But that kind of thing’s not good for property values. Generally we pay for refinement of another sort – the sort you’re rightly dubious about.

You consistently conflate the landscape with mammalian biology, and the sewage treatment facility seems almost sentient in the poem, which struck me as very doomful, in a science fiction sort of way. What/who would you cite as your influences for this poem? What are your interests away from the page, and do they creep into your work at all?

Our physical dependence on oil, and before too long on the next energy source that comes along – yeah, that seems analogous to the way bodies need energy. And the way that all that taking care of need, and getting rid of the waste products of satisfied need, goes on for every one of us unconsciously, beneath the noise of thinking, desiring, doing, thinking about desiring, talking about doing, etc. etc.

I like the way A. R. Ammons was not afraid of the languages of science. Nor of a bit of humour. I’ve tried for a somewhat different sort of line from his.

Maybe Iain Sinclair’s prose crept in there – or his sort of attentiveness anyway.

Can we expect more poems like this from you in the future, or was this an isolated experiment?

I’ll probably write a few more poems in these prose couplets of irregular length.

What did you do to celebrate your victory? Anything wild?

No celebration, no. I’m kind of busy these days. And I’m a family man. Maybe when I get to the end of the term I’ll go out and buy some Vic Chesnutt CDs. The poem is kind of privately dedicated to him, who sang the word “realtor” like no one else.

Vincent Colistro

Vincent Colistro

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Check out the guidelines for our 2013 Open Season Awards.