David Janzen is a writer and social philosopher. He also writes and performs music under the moniker Local Haunts.
His work has received creative and academic awards, including a National Magazine Award (Honourable Mention), the EVENT Non-fiction Prize, and the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Award.
Born and raised a prairie kid, David now lives in London, Ontario.
To listen to music by David's band here: Local Haunts on Bandcamp
Read the collaborative essay by David Janzen and Andy Verboom here: Thesis On The Criticism of Popular Songwriting
Describe, if you would, the space you’re sitting in while you respond to these questions.
My office. I live with my partner, two teenagers, and a newborn in an old house in East London. There’s not a lot of space, and the office has become my catch-all—there’s books, stringed instruments, disassembled bike parts, coffee mugs or beer cans (depending on the time of day). There are no pictures on the walls because we’re constantly thinking “should we turn it into the baby’s nursery? Maybe next weekend.”
“Remainders” reads like a kind of subversive love letter: love/hope/passion (an ephemeral wartime cardinal, red flicker) is distorted by its encounter with the torpid bourgeoisie (landlord’s muscle car); “das Ding an sich” as dwelling is to be replaced by “afterthoughts and remainders”; and the narrator and the poem’s addressee are finally found parenthesized in experience’s surplus, reminiscence.
Does that sound anywhere near the mark? I wonder if you’d offer a word or two about how poetry in particular can (or does) facilitate change on the political/social/economic level.
Yes! For me, there are two ways that poetry might be socially and politically transformative.
The first (what we might call engaged poetry) is by explicitly addressing revolutionary themes. There is a long tradition of engaged poetry—from canonized poets like Shelley through contemporary writers like Cheena Marie Lo.
The second is less direct. Poetry organizes what is sensible or imaginable in ways that frame what is neither sensible or imaginable. It attunes us to the ways in which, even at the most basic level of perception, things could be different. It invites us to examine and explore those unformed truths—the remainders—that lie beyond our grasp.
For sure: “Remainders” is a kind of love letter. The history of literature tells us that love is not a feeling—it’s a transformative event, like revolution. To affirm such a transformative event means to remake the world in light of a new truth, and that remaking involves affirmation and joy, but also anxiety, loneliness, and tragedy.
It also means affirming something without knowing how it will turn out. I would even say it’s about acknowledging the impossibility of truth—the truths of love, of revolution, of poetry—and affirming it anyway.
This is why poetry has always been connected to both love and revolution. They’re not about imagining and planning a happy ending. They’re about committing oneself to something one knows to be impossible.
The evocative phrase “blackeyed archeologist” recurs throughout these poems. I wonder whether you’d explore its meaning for you in relation to the larger themes at play here.
Maybe just a reference; contemplating Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, Walter Benjamin writes:
"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise […]”.
We like to believe that humanity is constantly improving; ultimately, though, the idea of historical progress is self-serving and false. What kind of sight—what kind of “eye”—allows us to look more truthfully and courageously at the disaster called history?
Yesterday I was listening to a conversation between Anne Carson and Michael Silverblatt during which Carson explained, “More and more what I do in order to think is to take five things––it could be five books on my desk, or five tasks someone gives me––and try to make the mind move from one to the other.”
And it occurred to me while reading “Surplus and Remainders” that as every new image accreted, the thoughts which connected them were surplus value. Then other surpluses came into view, things in the news like U.S. war monuments and evacuation rehearsals in Seoul.
In other words, I’ve acquired ‘surplus goggles’.
I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience; and if so: what other forms of surplus and remainders have you encountered? What about this way of seeing is vital?
Absolutely. I think it’s important to recognize that “surplus” is an excess (like profit), but it’s also experienced as loss. It is felt as separation or alienation.
Karl Marx discovered and described surplus value in economic terms. Say a worker in a factory makes two pairs of shoes in one day; by making something, she creates value through her work. Unfortunately, that value doesn’t belong to the worker; it is turned into profit by someone else (the capitalist).
Say the worker gets paid $80 per day, the shoes cost $20 to make, and the shoes sell for $100 per pair. If she makes two pairs, that creates $100 profit. In this scenario (capitalism) “exploitation” doesn’t simply mean the mistreatment of other humans—it means that people are separated from the objects they make and from the value they create.
So, part of my reflections on surplus is explicitly political: why should the value we create be sold off as (someone else’s) profit?
I think most of what Marx wrote about economic surplus remains mostly true. But there are other versions of the same basic idea. Like, for example, the way that getting what one wants is never as good as the anticipation of getting what one wants. When we get what we want (money, recognition, coffee, etc.), it never quite satisfies our desire—it’s never quite what we thought it would be. Something is always lost.
Why? Where does that “something” go?
I think these are political (more than psychological) questions. They’re also poetic questions: poetry deals in the surplus of language.
“Superposition” nods towards Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” famous for the phrase “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Have you any thoughts to share regarding the passionate intensity so vulgarly on display downwind of us? Can an understanding of surplus/remainders be of use here?
We live in a time of crisis. Racism, misogyny, and xenophobia are rampant, not only in explicit, organized forms (the alt-right, neo-nazis, xenophobic groups like PEGIDA, etc.), but also in the ways that things like so-called “free speech,” police militarization, and “All lives matter” discourse normalize violence and exploitation. These are not just American problems—they exist here, too.
Can understanding surplus be of use? The short answer is: yes! In times (like ours) where there is less and less economic surplus, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia tend to gain force.
I believe our job—as people, as writers, as poets—is to quash these dangerous forces, to build alternatives, and to support groups (like Black Lives Matter and the water protectors at Standing Rock) who are already building alternatives with creativity and immense courage. What is the role of poetry in all this? There is emerging Canadian poetry—including recent work by Jordan Abel and Amy De’ath—that answers that question better than I can.
Energy Demo(s) suggests that the problem of global warming “requires new kinds of representation, a reinvention or reconfiguration of the aesthetic forms structuring how we understand and narrate environmental destruction.” The resulting experiment uses “a method of translating petroleum market and extraction data into sound [to facilitate] a sensory experience of historical data.”
Did other candidate means of translating or aestheticizing––tracking, narrating?––occur to you? Have you encountered similar projects using other media? What is the importance, in your view, of turning data into story in the modern age?
For me, it’s a kind of anti-story narration. I’m experimenting, first, with ways of reading data and, second, with the basic materiality of sound. Does that make it poetry? I’m not sure.
Normally, when we “read” climate change data, we understand it within an existing narrative about the environment, crisis, and so on. The fact that we’re still building pipeline shows the existing narratives are failing. I’m hoping that the turning data into raw sound adds a material and dialectical element; perhaps it allows us to read against the sedimented narratives and effects.
On a more personal note, I wonder whether your recent ingress into fatherhood has shifted or focused or made more urgent your exploration of surplus value, environmental destruction, Marxist thought, and/or poetry.
Do you have any easier questions? Not long ago I was living in Mayan villages in rural Guatemala, working with anti-capitalist, anti-mining indigenous organizations. Today I went to the park, stopped in at the Superstore, negotiated with my partner who would get which hours to write, etc.
I can tell you that it’s easier to believe one is on the right side doing the former. As a white, educated, male, father (etc.) in London, ON, it’s impossible for me to avoid my complicity in processes like gentrification, labour exploitation, and gender inequality.
The other big change has to do with time. Raising a baby gives everything a profound immediacy. But, at the same time, things happen very slowly. More and more, I tend to think and write in temporal extremes—the geographical time of millennia and the biological time of moment-to-moment.
A good line of Carson’s that came out of the aforementioned conversation and feels relevant here: “Art is something to occupy your mind while you put up with reality.”
That one is easier: No. Art disrupts and transforms reality.
What had been an often extremely subtle subversive tone at the end of this piece becomes a more declarative one, an urgent yowl.
Is it too glib to ask, Why such a shift? (If not, “Why the shift?”)
The all-caps part is actually a quote from a Wallace Stevens poem. But also, the speaker in “Surplus” suggests that she/you are inescapably exploited and alienated. She wonders if maybe it’s best to burn it all down and start anew. I guess, given her response, it seems obscene to feign subtlety.