The art of writing #5 : Karl Jirgens

How did you first come to writing flash fiction? What is it about the form that resonates?

I write or create text-pieces in many formats including visual poetry, poetry, flash-fiction, short stories, inter-media performances, and I’m working on a novel. I’ve even written micro-lit, which is extremely short. I was included in an edition titled Short Circuits, edited by James Lough and Alex Stein (Schaffner Press, Tucson, 2018). It’s a fun collection and has lots of micro-texts by writers such as Lily Ackerman, Charles Bernstein, Joy Harjo, H. L. Hix, Karl Kempton, Richard Kostelanetz, and so on. So, when I write, I fit an idea to an appropriate length. I don’t sit down and say, “now I’m going to write a short story.” Instead, I think of an idea, and then, I pick an appropriate format. For example, Short Circuits ran a piece of mine called, “Cultural Exchange”. It went like this: “We / Know – Oui / Non”.  Wally Keeler of the “People’s Republic of Poetry” put a series of texts like that one on display at a Cobourg, Ontario Art Gallery. So, even a short piece can carry a lot of meaning depending on its context and audience. I take a cue from Walter J. Ong who said, “the audience is always a fiction” and I think that’s true, at least from an author’s point of view. We must imagine who we’re writing to. I was one of Marshall McLuhan’s last students, so for me in many ways, the medium is at least half of the message. Yevgeny Zamiatin (author of the dystopian novel, We, 1924) wrote an essay about how speedy times demand speedy writing. I think he was right. Flash fiction makes sense in a time-sensitive milieu where cultural stimuli are accelerating, and people seem to have less leisure time. We’re in something of a temporal crisis, so flash-fiction serves well.

How does a short story begin?

I guess it always begins with an idea or a question or an impulse, maybe an observation or a concept. In a way, that’s a funny question. It’s a good question, and it makes me think. To my mind, it’s little bit like asking where does a rope begin, or how long is a rope? We might ask what defines “rope” or what defines “story”? So, I guess, a story begins at the beginning. Then, when the story’s done, it ends. This doesn’t mean there has to be a traditional narrative unity. It could begin in media res or a text could be like a rhizome without any beginning, centre, or end, as Gilles Deleuze suggested. I suppose we can figure out if it’s a micro- or flash-fiction, or a short-story or a novella or a novel depending on how long it takes to tell the story. But some texts move into visual realms outside of what we normally think of as “story”. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to remember the oral tradition when talking about stories.  So, I guess I could say that stories begin with an idea that you think is worth sharing.

How did publishing your first book change your writing?

Hmm. I’m not sure it did, really. I just kept writing. I’ve only got four books out, I’ve edited 2 others, I’m editing yet another, I edited a literary mag for many years, and I’ve guest-edited other scholarly/literary publications such as Frank Davey’s Open Letter. I write scholarly essays. I put on shows, readings, performances as part of my presentation style. The list goes on. I try to say what I feel needs to be said. Someone, maybe Borges once said, that if you go into a major library and you see the labyrinth of books there, and if you believe you have something more to say, then you better say it. So, sometimes I say less, sometimes more. Lately, I’ve been researching the Cold War and global genocides. I don’t think enough has been said about some of that, notably lack of information on atrocities that happened in places like Armenia, the Siberian Gulag, Cambodia, East Timor, Chiapas, or to Indigenous people in North America. Other crises involving the Freedom Riders, Rwanda, or Sri Lanka have been publicized, but they’re still horrific. Too often, the meaning of silence is violence.

Have you a daily schedule by which you work, or are you working to fit this in between other activities?

Well, I do have a daily schedule for my job, but that’s different from my writing schedule. Robert Frost talked about the difference between a vocation and an avocation. When I’m free from job duties, I don’t stick to any schedule except to respond when inspiration knocks at my door. But inspiration keeps an irregular schedule. Sometimes it comes in the middle of the night. Or, sometimes inspiration arrives late due to traffic congestion, or because of a motivational crisis, or a drunken binge, or simply getting lost. Or sometimes inspiration wakes me up at the crack of dawn. But, it seldom knocks twice. Sometimes inspiration brings a barrage of ideas. Then, I jot them down quickly. Other times it brings a shoddy idea, and I think about whether I should bother keeping that idea or not. I have a full-time job. Sometimes that job inspires, but sometimes it derails inspiration. Either way, it’s good to have a handy-note-taking procedure. So, I keep notes, and I work incrementally. Sooner or later, a text gets done. Then, it’s time to do something with it. Other times people request certain types of writing or texts. So, I work with their requirements and deadlines. Either way, it’s important to set time aside to write because if you don’t, then you won’t.

What are your favourite print or online literary journals?

There are lots of fun print and on-line mags. I used to read literary journals constantly. Now, less so. Of the ones out there years ago, I liked a bunch of mags outside of Canada like, Kaldron, or Offerte Speciale, UnMuzzled Ox, sometimes Interview. $$Very different. Lots of new ideas. I like art magazines too, because I think the so-called “border” between “text” and “visual art” and/or “performance” is porous and quite open. I find INTER magazine from Quebec City (Francophone) very exciting. I also like what Fiction International is doing (based in California). Very cool. Sometimes I read, comic books, or The Paris Review, or Granta. I’m pretty much omnivorous. In Canada, I’ve read Dandelion, Filling Station, Tessera, File, Only Paper Today, This, Canadian Fiction, Capilano Review, Descant, CV2, or Carousel. Some of those stopped publishing; others endure. There were some older publications that were always inspiring such as bpNichol’s GrOnk and Ganglia, or bill bissett’s blue ointment, Frank Davey’s Open Letter, Eldon Garnet’s Impulse, or Bernstein & Andrews’ L=A=N=G=A=U=G=E. One of my favourites was Charlton Burch’s Lighthouse. Those are history. I remember the Evergreen Review, and Blast. Wow. Always something awesome in those. Old stuff, but still inspiring and fun to revisit. Attitudes have changed. Difficult writing or writing that is complex in some ways, tends to find sparse audiences. And too often, critics seem ill-equipped to comment on writing that is formally innovative. So, experimental work finds a harder time reaching the public. That’s why I published Rampike (which started in 1979). It aimed to feature innovative writing as well as fresh art, and cutting-edge theory. Rampike published a stellar list. I’ll drop a bunch of names here; Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, Lillian Allen, Reed Altemus, Paul Auster, Laurie Anderson, Rae Armantrout, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Russell Banks, Gary Barwin, Michael Basinski, Ian Baxter&, Derek Beaulieau, Greg Betts, Charles Bernstein, bill bissett, Christian Bök, Chris Burden, William Burroughs, Joseph Beuys, Jaap Blonk, George Bowering, Nicole Brossard, Jason Camlot, Amy Catanzano, Eleanor Catton, George Elliott Clarke, Jacques Derrida, Christopher Dewdney, Paul Dutton, Umberto Eco, Ray Federman, Vera Frenkel, John Giorno, Eugen & Nortrud Gomringer Helen Hajnockzky, Noel Harding, Brian Henderson, Dick Higgins, Tomson Highway, Linda Hutcheon, Hal Jaffe, Thomas King,  Richard Kostelanetz, Julia Kristeva, Robert Kroetsch, Robert Lepage, Clarice Lispector, Karen Mac Cormack, Alistair MacLeod, Richard Martel, Daphne Marlatt, Robert Mapplethorpe, Marshall McLuhan, Steve McCaffery, David McFadden, Erin Mouré, Norval Morrisseau, Andra Neiburga, Louise Nevelson, bpNichol, Joyce Carol Oates, Jűrgen Olbrich, Lance Olsen, Dennis Oppenheim, NourbeSe Philip, Al Purdy, Jerome Rothenberg, Stuart Ross, R. Murray Schafer, Diane Schoemperlen, Philippe Sollers, Carol Stetser, Rosemary Sullivan, W.M. Sutherland, Steve Tomasula, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Nico Vassilakis, Gerald Vizenor, Fred Wah, David Foster Wallace, Michael Winkler, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, among many others. Sorry for the epic list, and sorry I can’t list them all. I’m grateful to our co-editor James Gray (Boston) who helped me round up talent. I don’t think any magazine in Canada has featured such a breadth of talent. By the way, the entire Rampike print run is scheduled to go on-line later this year through the Leddy Library system at the University of Windsor, on a not-for-profit, free-public-access basis (all copyrights remain with authors/artists), with an easy opt-out if someone doesn’t want their art or writing on-line, but so far, everybody’s happy to have their work featured in this forthcoming historical archive. Rampike featured numerous prize-winning and ground-breaking artists writers and theorists, including nominees and winners of awards such as the Booker, Commonwealth, Orange, Pulitzer, Dublin Impac, Neustadt, Giller, Trillium, Writer’s Trust, and Governor General’s Award, to name a few. But the magazine was just as interested in those who were by-passed by awards committees but were innovative in important ways. Rampike was careful to publish emerging talent next to established talent. The idea was to let the audience compare and react to the material printed.

More recently, on-line mags and web-sites have transformed the literary landscape.  I follow a number of them. I enjoy both small and large sites or mags, such as The Poetry Foundation, Lemon Hound, Brave New Word, and even the London Guardian. There are also very interesting combo on-line/print mags like Angry Old Man. I think Talking about Strawberries All of the Time is wonderful. It’s refreshing, while offering an open perspective on recent expression. There’s Bomb, Alienist, Alecart, Amanda Earl’s Angel House, several of rob mclennan blogs,, etc. The small press scene is vital and important. I think of earlier small-press ventures such as jw Curry’s “Curved H&z,” Marschall Hryciuk’s “Nietzsche’s Brolly,” Gary Barwin’s “Serif of Notingham,” Stuart Ross’s “Mondohunkamooga” among many others he ran. I also appreciate the recent ones like Derek Beaulieu’s “No Press” or Windsor’s “Zed Press.” On the other hand, I also like reading scholarly mags like the PMLA and World Literature Today, or a wide range of scholarly mags on the JSTOR site, to see what people are thinking. I read about science, economics, Indigenous culture, environmental issues, human rights, and I hunt out contemporary art and writing. Alternately, I enjoy unusual mags such as the Fortean Times. There’s an array of Visual Poetic works in on-line publications including those headed by artists such as Crag Hill, Nico Vassilakis, Sheila Murphy, Jim Andrews, or Peter Carlaftes, among others. I know I’ve left out so many other fantastic publishers. I apologize in advance. Later, I’ll remember them and kick myself for not mentioning them. Overall, I think editors are the unsung heroes of the literary world, working at the grass-roots level, providing forums for new expression. I think of Norman Levine’s idea that writers all begin in small magazines. I think of A.J. Liebling’s idea that freedom of the press only belongs to those who own a press. It’s a vital thing to do and I think it makes the world a better place.

Also, for years, I’ve enjoyed “book-art” (books that go beyond being just carriers of text but investigate the art of the book itself). Miekal And’s Xexoxial Endarchy has done plenty of ground-breaking work. I loved Greg Curnoe’s Blue Book. I remember reading a photocopied book called Double Bind which had binding on both sides but was in a flexible 8.5 x 11 paper format, so you could pop it open and look inside, kind of like down a tube. Robert Fones is one of my favourite “text” artists. And I love what Ireland’s Red Fox Press is doing. Superb!  

Who are some of the writers you are reading lately that most excite you?

To answer that question fully would generate a very long list, but I’ll try to tighten up my response by confining my comments to prose and by saying that recently I’ve been delving deeper into what might be loosely called “difficult prose”. So, I’ve been re-reading authors such as Gail Scott (The Obituary, 2011 finalist for Le Grand Prix du Livre de la Ville de Montréal), Mark Z. Danielewki (House of Leaves), Clarice Lispector, Lance Olsen, Steve Tomasula, Hal Jaffe, Norman Lock, Angela Carter, Steve McCaffery, Andre Alexis, and older works by Camut, Beckett, Woolf, Joyce, Murial Spark, Kazuo Ishiguru, and so on. I just picked up a copy of Henry Eliot’s Follow this Thread, (a maze book to get lost in). I enjoy reading works featuring formal innovations by authors such as Aaron Tucker, Gustave Morin, Derek Beaulieu, Peter Jaeger. And then for a combination of inspiration and pleasure I read works by writers such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, Clarice Lispector, Julio Cortazar, Diane Schoemperlen, John Kennedy Toole. I’m really interested in text-based performance pieces and writer/artists such as Jarry, Stoppard, Reaney, or more recently, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, or Robert Lepage, Charles Bernstein (Shadowtime), Vera Frenkel (This is your Messiah Speaking), including iconoclasts such as Istvan Kantor (a.k.a. Monty Cantsin). But there are others who are very powerful such as Robin Robertson, Alistair MacLeod, Thomas King, Gail Scott, Paul Auster, Afua Cooper, Jeanette Winterson. The trouble with this kind of question for me is that I inevitably leave out someone who has changed my life, but I couldn’t think of at the time. Maybe Chaucer, L. Sterne, Rabelais, Sam Clemens, J.L. Borges, Doris Lessing, Tsao Hsueh-chin, G.G. Marquez, Alice Munro. And, there are great writers who cross borders between poetry and prose sometimes, such as Phil Hall or maybe Anne Carson. And then, there’s the new front of pod-casts and video-casts, such as the work of Al Filreis at U Penn. But, overall, I won’t comment on a poetry list. It would be epic and too long. I do enjoy innovative writing. I’ve also read plenty of literary theory. Lately I’ve been re-reading Espen Aarseth and Gilles Deleuze. The only rule of literary theory that I subscribe to is Horace’s rule of “decorum” which simply-put is, “what” you say, should match “how” you say. To sum up, I think I appreciate literary works that offer new ideas in combination with carefully considered innovative forms. And that’s one of several reasons why I appreciate Talking about strawberries all of the time!

Karl Jirgens, the former Head of the English Dept., at the University of Windsor, is the author of four books from Coach House Press, Mercury Press, and ECW Press. He has also edited two books, one on painter Jack Bush and another on poet Christopher Dewdney. He is currently serving as an advising editor on a book of Latvian-Canadian art. He has a new collection of short fiction coming out soon. His scholarly and creative writing pieces are published internationally. His recent research is on electronic and digital media as it intersects with literature and performance. In addition, he is conducting research on genocide during World War Two, which is also featured in his novel-in-progress centered on the Cold War. From 1979 to 2016, Jirgens edited Rampike, an international periodical featuring contemporary art and writing. He is currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program and continues to serve as a Professor at the University of Windsor.

One of his flash fictions appeared in the first issue.