I met with Jason Camlot [left] on the afternoon of March 17, 2009 in his office at Concordia University in Montreal. I had misplaced my voice-recorder that day but luckily had recently downloaded a voice-recording applet onto my phone. Camlot also had a professional recorder on hand, which he told me had been used to record some of his practice jam sessions and also for recording poetry readings. We ran both recorders at the same time, just in case, and sure enough one of them ran out of batteries midway through the interview. Many thanks to Jason for having the good sense to suggest we use both of them. –- Greg Santos
GS: Montreal poets like A.M. Klein, Earle Birney, Louis Dudek, P.K. Page, Irving Layton, and Leonard Cohen dominated much of the Canadian poetry scene between the 1920s and 1960s. In his classic 1954 essay, “The Montreal Poets”, Louis Dudek wrote “we can see in their poetry a sense of place, of a real city that has an odd, ugly vitality of its own.” How would you define a Montreal poet nowadays?
Jason Camlot: There are a lot of different kinds of Montreal poets, as there have always has been. I don’t think there is a single definition of a Montreal poet. Some of them are here for a couple of years. Some of them were born here and are here for their lives. I suppose if I had to answer that question and I’ve obviously been engaged in trying to or trying not to answer that very question…more like what is an Anglo_Quebec poet…someone who’s positioned a little bit differently in relation to language and in relation to macro versus micro culture.
I went to parochial or private Jewish school. I read the bible and studied it in Hebrew. That’s probably the first poetry I actually read but didn’t really understand. Which is a really nice way to encounter poetry. It’s probably how everyone first encounters poetry. You read something you don’t understand. But also being exposed to it in high school in my North American literature class. That’s how the course was described. It wasn’t American. It wasn’t Canadian literature. It was my North American literature class. Which consisted of American poetry but also especially of Canadian poetry so the first real poetry I read wasn’t Layton or Cohen but it was Earle Birney. And I think Birney was the first poet that I’ve ever understood in nationalist terms or in the kinds of terms that you seem to be at least asking about. But it just so happens that the guidance counselor at my high school, for example, was the daughter-in-law of A.M. Klein. There were connections to other poets and I was exposed to them in different ways but it was only really when I left Montreal when I started thinking more about the kind of question you’re asking.
GS: You received your Masters in Boston and your PhD in Stanford. What would you say are the differences between the poetry scene in those places and in Canada?
JC: I was in the academic program at Boston University. I could say more about California or San Francisco because I lived there for five years. I actually sat in on a workshop with Simone Di Piero while I was there and so met some poets within the workshop like Nicole Krauss. I was also involved in a poetry scene there, through music as well, with poets who I’m still sort of in touch with and whose work and activities as poets were completely separate from Stanford. They weren’t Stegner Fellows, these people. They were students. Or not. They were San Francisco dwellers. One is Katie Degentesh. Another is Eugene Ostashevsky. We held readings and we did things but they were meant to have nothing to do with the university.
But I was also exposed to all kinds of poets that Marjorie Perloff would bring there. So I met, or at least got to hear all kinds of poets while I was there. There was a pretty active poetry scene on campus as well as in the city but they seemed quite separate from each other. I think here, they are a little more integrated, actually. I think that the community scene is sort of fluid with our university and a lot of the people still involved in the poetry scene in Montreal or literary scene in general maybe at one time did their degree here and still have connections with people here. There are very strong connections between university and I guess places like St. Laurent where a lot of readings happen.
GS: You currently teach Victorian literature at Concordia. How do you reconcile your life as researcher with your life as someone who produces creative literature?
JC: They have always been deeply connected for me, by which I mean I have always been writing both and I think that my critical or academic writing has always been informed by my creative writing and vice-versa. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t always publicly both. When I was at Stanford my academic thesis advisor, when I expressed, only once, the fact that I was also interested in creative writing, she said “You’re going to have to choose.” But that wasn’t the case at all and I continued to write poetry. While I was doing my dissertation I was writing long poems about John Ruskin as I was writing a chapter on Ruskin. I basically found myself thinking sometimes in poems about critical subjects that I was ultimately writing about for my dissertations. I think that continues to be the case. I can imagine myself fully continuing to work in many different genres only to the benefit of both kinds of writing, in my opinion. I’ve read reviews that call, if not my work, other poets who are also academics, calling their poetry “academic”. I don’t really know what that means. But for me that’s kind of a bogus category. Poetry can be affective and intellectually abstract simultaneously.