Guest Writers · On Writing

Karl Jirgens – Poet, Writer, Teacher

(Photo credit: Ed Niedjielski)

Dr. Karl Jirgens and I have been swimming in the same literary circles for years. However, it wasn’t until this year, when I edited Whisky Sour City (Black Moss Press, 2013), a poetry anthology about the city of Windsor, that I had the opportunity to get to know Karl on a personal level. Karl is a writer, a professor in the English Department of Language & Literature at the University of Windsor, and the editor of Rampike Magazine, a literary magazine that truly shreds the proverbial ‘envelope’ of all things poetry and challenges writers to not just think outside the box, but re-create the box, blow up the box, or just darn damn the box, if you know what I mean. (I’m still wrapping my brain around it as my poetic impulses tend to stay close the box.)

I was thrilled when he answered ‘yes’ to my invitation for him to be a guest writer on my blog! I think you’ll find Karl’s answers extremely interesting and mind-expanding.  Let’s get it started, shall we?

VS: Share a bit of your writing background – what you write, why you write, where you write.

KJ: Kind thanks for the questions, Vanessa! It’s a pleasure to take part in this on-line interview. I’ve been writing for quite some time, and I do different types of writing. For example, as a free-lance journalist I’ve written articles for several publications such as the Literary Review of Canada. I’ve done many literary reviews for publications such as Canadian Literature. In addition, I’ve published dozens of scholarly and academic articles covering contemporary literature (post-colonial/post-modern/contemporary writing), and those articles are published internationally in scholarly journals such as World Literature Today (United States), La Revista Canaria de Etudio Ingleses (Spain), Q/W/E/R/T/Y (France), Canadian Literature, and Open Letter (Canada), as well as the Dictionary of Literary Biography (entry on Jacques Lacan, in the Twentieth-Century European Cultural Theorists edition, United States). My fiction and poetry are published in Australia, Europe, and North America, and my inter-media performance pieces have been presented internationally, including at the prestigious INTER Fest (Québec City). I’ve got four books in print from ECW, Mercury and Coach House Presses, as well as new fictional works coming out periodically with Teksteditions (Toronto). And, after periodically chaining myself to my desk at home, I keep writing my novel, as well as a book-length scholarly study on digital culture and inter-media performance.  

VS: Tell us a bit about the history of Rampike. When/how/why was it conceived?

KJ: I started Rampike in 1979, as a literary and arts publication because at the time I felt that periodical publishing in Canada was in something of a rut. Some publications were quite good, but the range available seemed to be a bit limited. I was more interested in the relationships between text and other media, as well as broader ranges of innovation in textual expression. The magazine has maintained an interest in text, language, and inter-media expression. When I started Rampike, I paid for it out of my own pocket which was tough, given the fact that I was a starving artist and a student at the time. However, I did eventually get help from both the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. Nowadays, even with help from the Canada Council, I still have to “donate” my own funds to help pay contributors. But, I was fortunate in getting some top-name international talent, right from the start. So, after that, we never looked back. When I say “we,” I refer to a couple of the co-editors who worked on the mag, such as James Gray (Boston), and Jim Francis (Toronto). None of us ever got paid, so it was pretty much a labour of love. Over the years, Rampike has had the good fortune of featuring top authors, artists and critics from around the world, including established talents published beside exciting emerging voices. Some of our many contributors include: Paul Auster, Kathy Acker, Vito Acconci, Reed Altemus, Laurie Anderson, Rae Armantrout, Russell Banks, Charles Bernstein, Clark Blaise, Nicole Brossard, Chris Burden, William Burroughs, Joseph Beuys, Christian Bök, George Bowering, George Elliott Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Christopher Dewdney, Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Modris Eksteins, Martin Esslin, Raymond Federman, Judith Fitzgerald, Vera Frenkel, Pierre Joris, William Gibson, Phil Hall, Tomson Highway, Dick Higgins, Susan Holbrook, Linda Hutcheon, Richard Kostelanetz, Julia Kristeva, Robert Kroetsch, Clarise Lispector, Norman Lock, Alistair MacLeod, Daphne Marlatt, Steve McCaffery, Richard Martel, Marshall McLuhan, Dennis Oppenheim, bpNichol, Joyce Carol Oates, NourbeSe Phillip, Harvey Pekar, Al Purdy, Nino Ricci, Jerome Rothenberg, Gail Scott, Roland Sabatier, Michel Serres, Josef Skvorecky, Philippe Sollers, Ronald Sukenick, Rosemary Sullivan, David Suzuki, Carol Stetser, Fred Wah, Anne Waldman, David Foster Wallace, Darren Wershler, Michael Winkler, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, to name only a very few. Over the years, we’ve steadily gained recognition among literati, and Rampike has been praised by both Canadian and international critics such as Judith Hoffberg, Marjorie Perloff, Frank Davey, Michael Basinski and Phil Hall, among others. Our profile continues to attract international attention. We have a basic web-site for the magazine which includes some past interviews I’ve done with some exciting artists and writers. And the web-site also includes a useful “back-issues” section that offers a definitive list of artists and writers we’ve published over the years. Here’s the web-site:   

And here’s some recent on-line coverage that was done by rob mclennan:

VS: In your opinion, how does poetry fit into today’s world? Specifically, where does Rampike fit into the world of poetry?

KJ: Well, critic and author, Steve McCaffery once said that Rampike has done more to open up international literary relations between Canada and the U.S.A., than any other publication in Canada. Maybe so. We’ve certainly done our share of international cultural liaison. I’d say that Rampike does a few of things. 1) It helps to introduce established and emerging, innovative literary voices from Canada, to an international audience (the magazine is distributed on 4 continents). So, Rampike serves a kind of cultural diplomatic function. And, 2) It keeps “pushing the envelope” and extending what is considered the so-called “cutting edge” of literary and/or language-based cultural expression, both in Canada and abroad, by continuing to present unconventional forms of language-based art and literary expression.

VS: Do you think ‘social media’ can be helpful in terms of getting poetry to the masses?

KJ: Sure! Digital culture is the new frontier. The inter-net is huge, and Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of a “global village” communicating instantaneously and electronically throughout the world-wide-web has come true. I had the good fortune of studying with McLuhan, and he also predicted the end of the book in print format. Print media is still strong, but I do think that texts will migrate ever more into digital formats. Due to the ubiquity of social media (it seems to be everywhere), the inter-net may prove to be less expensive than print, and so, it is likely that more people will have greater access to poetry and writing in general through the inter-net, rather than in print formats (although, I must say, I do like the tactile experience of reading printed paper).

VS: Who are your favourite writers (poets or not) – you can list up to five!

KJ: That’s a question that could bring a different answer nearly every day, so I’m not sure how to respond to it. But I can say that early on, I was an admirer of Yvgeny Zamiatin who wrote the dystopian novel We, which anticipated much of present day culture. Lately, I’ve been pursuing the work of Janet Cardiff, who is not strictly speaking a “writer” but who works with George Bűres Miller to create small format, language-based inter-media performance works. I find Nicole Brossard’s fictions to be very courageous and inspirational. One of the superstars whom I admire is Canada’s own Robert Lepage, whose internationally staged works offer a phantasmagoria of digital effects within a highly innovative theatrical framework. Tom Stoppard comes to mind, notably, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, his deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Shakespeare is always an inspiration)I also like reading ancient texts from a variety of cultures (eastern and western) as well as the works of contemporary indigenous or “native” authors. 

VS: Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, why? If no, why?

KJ: I suppose all writers and artists have some form of writer’s block, or artist’s block, sooner or later. One of the best ways to get through writer’s block is to write about writer’s block, so, yes, I think it exists, but maybe it’s not a big issue. To look at it another way, either someone has something to say, or they don’t. Sometimes if there’s nothing pressing to say, then it’s not a bad idea to lie “fallow” and remain quiet for a while, so that the energies and ideas that seek expression can assemble themselves for your next piece of writing. On the other hand, sometimes, the problem involves how to say something, but I don’t think of that as writer’s block, because the whole time one is actively wrestling with ideas before actually putting them down on paper. I tend to think of writing more as a process than a product, so, sometimes it’s worth the wait or the struggle for something worthwhile.

VS: What/who inspires your writing?

KJ: I’m at least partly motivated by Eros and Thanatos (life and death drives), combined with a compassion for the world, and a deep appreciation of language as a medium of artistic expression. In the back of my mind I have the notion that if I’m going to say something that matters, then, I’d better spit it out before I shuffle off of this mortal coil. Of course reading other wonderful writers can be inspirational, and maybe that’s why I’ve continued editing Rampike for so long, because there’s always something exciting that comes across the editorial desk. Meantime, this interview has been a lot of fun! Many kind thanks for asking these questions! It’s been a pleasure to reply!

Thank you so much, Karl!!

If you’re interested in submitting to Rampike, please visit the website for submission guidelines. And, for a better understanding of what Rampike is, here is a great link:

What’s it about?


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