John Madera Interviews Ken Sparling

Madera: Isn’t This What You Were Looking For? is part of a larger work Book. Why did you choose to release this as a fragment? Are your forthcoming publications also excerpts from Book? Would you talk a bit about Book as a whole?

Sparling: Imagine there was just one thing you were trying to say, and you weren’t even sure what it was you were trying to say exactly, you just felt you had something to say, so you kept trying to say what it was you were trying to say and hoping that one time you would say it in a way that would allow you to finally see just exactly what it was you’d been trying to say. Imagine that sometimes you managed to say what you were trying to say better than other times, and you collected the best examples of what you were trying to say and put them together in a book hoping that, by saying it a bunch of times in a bunch of different ways, you’d maybe get closer to seeing what you’d been trying to say. If this were the case, and you took a number of examples of your attempts to say what you were trying to say and gave them to someone to publish in a chapbook, it wouldn’t feel like you were releasing a fragment, so much as providing an example.

Madera: What was it like working with J.A. Tyler and Mud Luscious Press?

Sparling: Tyler asked me if I would be willing to submit something. I looked at some stuff about him and his press that I could find online. I took at look at some of the pieces I was working on at the time, picked something that I was ready to share, and sent it off. Tyler accepted the piece. He didn’t ask to make any changes. That’s about all there was to it.

I’ve been receiving other MLP chapbooks in the series mine is part of, and they are all beautiful, so I’m thrilled that he allowed me to be a part of his project.

Madera: While this chapbook is certainly a refractive work where each page may be read as a standalone piece there are themes, words, phrases that seam it together. How did you envision this story? Were these separate pieces that you fused together? Or did one lead to the other?

Sparling: Every piece of any book I make stands alone as an example of an attempt to say what I’m trying to say, and every example is implicated into the whole by being another example of the same thing I keep trying to say. I think what connects the pieces in my books isn’t so much theme or words or phrases, as much as intention, my intention to continue to try to say what I haven’t quite yet been able to say. I think ideas like theme or plot or character or imagery are ways of talking about connection when you fear that the pieces in your book stem from, or rely on each other to exist, and that’s certainly probably the case with a lot of books, maybe most books. But the pieces that come together in my books don’t look to each other for validation, they look to something outside the book, which is the something I’m trying to say; what holds my books together is that the thing all the pieces look to is always me.

Madera: One passage in your chapbook seemed to speak to your aesthetic. You write:

“I was in the loop. I would say it was a loop. I began where I was standing, ran north, then curled back & ran parallel to myself till I came back to where I was standing. I would call that a loop. I would stay in the loop. This would make a limit for me. There was an entire world of limits available. Some not what I imagined, I knew, but still…”

There are a number of loops in your writing. Many passages resemble that snake that eats its own tail. How did this approach, this recursive, almost regurgitant style develop for you? And speaking of limits, I wonder if there are constraints that you give yourself while you write.

Sparling: I don’t intentionally give myself constraints, although I’m sure I constrain myself in ways I’m not aware of. Words are what limit me. Words point to something, but they themselves remain nothing – they emphasize their status as nothing in the very act of pointing. Words point away from themselves.

Words are the something a writer uses to cover the nothing he begins with.

Words are great because they always remain nothing, if you pay enough attention.

As a writer, my job is to try to trick words into turning back and pointing at themselves. When words turn back on themselves, they laugh. So words either point, or they laugh. I try to take the pedestrian pointing of words and turn it into laughter. Like water on rocks. I try to take the talk out of words and turn them into sounds. I wrench the meaning out of words and try to render them musical – in the way music is able to mean so much without ever meaning anything. So, at a very fundamental level, I’m definitely dealing in loops. I’m trying to get words to stop pointing at whatever it is they hope to reference, to get them to loop back on themselves, to make them laugh.

Madera: Who and what have influenced how you approach writing and then how it ends up looking on the page?

Sparling: When I was first under contract with Knopf to make a book, the idea was that I would do a book of stories. At one point, when was I struggling to put together enough stories – and wondering if I could get away with making a book where most of the stories were just a dozen sentences or less – I got scared thinking I had to try to sustain a longer narrative in at least some of my stories. I sent Lish some longer stories that I’d written specifically for the book. He wrote back: “You’re just spinning your wheels, Sparling.” And it was true. I knew it was true before I ever sent him the stories. I just wrote them and sent them without taking much time with them or paying much attention to what was in them, because I didn’t want to see what they were, that they totally weren’t working. I was pretty desperate, because I just didn’t think I could get away with a book where most of the stories were just a paragraph or two. I had a bunch of these very short stories that were all about Tutti, so I decided to put them all together into one longer piece. I did this, and it was maybe 60 or 70 pages, and then I sent it to Lish, packaged up with a bunch of my one paragraph stories, and I told him that this was going to be my book. Lish said: “Why just put the Tutti stories together? Put them all together and we’ll make it a novel.”

When I went to university for the second time, after completely failing out the first time, it didn’t take long for me to begin to think I was doomed again. I made it through the first year, barely, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to get through a second year. One of my first year profs said I should try taking a course with a guy named Alan Blum, so I did. Alan and a couple of other professors he worked with, saved me. Alan is a man of great intentions, for sure, and he seems always to be struggling to say something that he isn’t quite sure how to say. He seems to know what he wants to tell his students, and he seems ever delighted in his exploration of different ways of talking about what he’s trying to talk about. I was never all that sure what Alan was trying to tell us. It didn’t matter. His lectures were like magic. Or music.

Madera: What are some of your favorite books?


Stranger in a Strange Land

The Martian Chronicles

Catcher in the Rye

Catch 22

Death on the Installment Plan

A Bicycle Rider in Beverley Hills

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

the Boudica books by Manda Scott

The Man Who Loved Children (this one totally blew my mind when I read it, I don’t know if I’d call any book my number one favourite, but I’d say this one had the greatest impact on me at the time I read it, whether that was entirely because it’s such a great book, or because of where I was at in my life when I read it)

Madera: Your work has much in common with visual arts practice. I think of your writing here as being much like a collagist’s work. And the way you use elements like balance, repetition, and contrast makes me think of painters. Do you see those parallels? Who are some of your favorite visual artists? Have they influenced the way you create your images on the page?

Sparling: No, I don’t think any artwork or visual artists have had a real influence on my work. Any knowledge I have about art or artists comes only because my friend Derek McCormack sometimes tells me about artists he’s interested in. I learned about Joseph Cornell through Derek, and found his work compelling – but the best thing about Cornell for me was reading Utopia Parkway, which is a great biography, partly because it’s about such a compelling figure, and partly because it’s so well written. Derek also introduced me to the work of Henry Darger; but, again, the best part of Darger for me was this big huge book that came out around the time Derek told me about Darger. I got to take a look at the book at the Toronto Reference Library, where my office is. But I wound up buying it. Derek worked at Book City and there was a slightly damaged copy that he was able to discount a bit for me. That book is beautiful, just as an object.

I can see why you might see parallels between visual arts and my work; Cornell’s work is compartmentalized and seems to be trying to lift the mundane to another plane, which might be a description of what I’m doing. Around the time I read about Cornell, I was working on Hush up and listen stinky poo butt, ripping apart withdrawn library books and using their covers to house my book. I glued pictures my kids had made to the cover of each book. In my hunt for suitable withdrawn hardcover books, I came across a lot of withdrawn children’s picture books, and, for a while, I ripped images out of art books, or magazines, and glued them over the words in the children’s books, turning them into art objects of a sort.

Madera: I was talking to Eugene Lim and besides being a great writer (Fog & Car is one of the strongest debuts I’ve read in years) and publisher (Ellipsis Press), he is, like you, also a librarian. How does working in a library affect you as a writer? Does it inform your work at all?

Sparling: A bunch of stuff that happened at the first library I worked at, Fairview Library, wound up in Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall. When I stopped working at Fairview, I moved to the marketing and communications department of Toronto Public Library, so I haven’t done any real library work for around fifteen years. I’m not actually even a librarian. I was a clerical at Fairview and my jobs, at various times, included cleaning washrooms, restocking toilet paper, emptying the coin boxes on photocopiers, processing long lines of people wanting to check out books, and reshelving books. So I could have been working at McDonalds or a grocery store or any menial job. It did certainly have an affect me, not because I was working at a library, but rather, because it made me feel like I wasn’t really a writer, which is what I wanted so badly to be. It made me feel like a bit of a loser, and it made me pursue my writing in a sort of desperate way that wasn’t necessarily conducive to great writing. At least in the marketing department I’m doing a bit of writing, so I’m thinking about language and how it operates, even if the stuff I write for the library is pretty much crap.

Madera: I often write in the library. Over the years the libraries in New York City have changed from being quiet havens for writers, researchers, and students into little more than noisy community centers. What’s the atmosphere like there in Canada?

Sparling: Up here, from a marketing perspective, your experience of libraries is exactly what we want it to be – public libraries are no longer just for books and reading and studying, they’re public spaces and, as such, attempt to serve the needs of all the public, not just scholars, writers and researchers. We think of public libraries as the most democratic of institutions, equalizing access to knowledge and culture; democracy is messy, because people are messy. As soon as you make a space truly public, you’re going to get a mess of stuff happening there.

Madera: What’s the strangest thing that’s happened for you in the library?

Sparling: One time I came into work at Fairview in the morning, and my desk was gone. At the time, I was making a little publication called Not a Newsletter, which was typed on a typewriter that had no “e” and was a kind of photocopied collage full of pretty dumb, but sometimes funny stuff, that I distributed to all staff at Fairview. Sort of an irreverent staff newsletter. I wrote an article in NAN about coming to work and finding my desk gone. So this is when the strange thing happened: the manager called me into her office and said: “This workplace is not a democracy.” She went on to tell me that I was not to write anything like that article again, or I would have to stop making NAN. So, the greatest democratic institution in the world, the public library, does not really practice what it preaches, and that was a pretty strange realization for me.

Madera: What’s next for you?

Sparling: I’ll let you know after it happens.

  1. […] Oh man cool interview with Ken Sparling. I love this dude, period. His writing I can honestly say has inspired me in many ways. Read The Chapbook Review interview here. […]

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