Sherwin Tjia is a Montreal artist who makes everything from Scrabble-tile lapel pins to schoolgirl comics to mini-CDs inviting us to listen to his friends masturbate. His latest book of poetry, The World is a Heartbreaker, is a collection of three liners: “i don’t want to say/ payback, but you know it’s/ pretty much payback”. It renewed my faith in the power and relevance of poetry the way that the best song lyrics do. I asked him a few questions over e-mail about the book’s development.
Such a small, compact, beautiful thing! But it was not always so small. Can you discuss its earlier incarnation? I first envisioned the collection laid out with one pseudohaiku per page. I wanted each poem to have enough room to breathe. I found that when they were laid out with more than one per page, I read them too fast, they way I’d be getting another potato chip while I’m still munching on one in my mouth. Either that, or each poem’s meaning would start bleeding into another. And not by design. So I wanted them all to have their own rooms. But it’s a collection of 1600 pseudohaikus. And it’s completely impractical to make a 1600-page book. So I compromised with the people at Coach House. We put ten on each page. And meaning bleeds from one poem to another, but there’s no real sequence to the poems, so it’s a random meaning, which is all I can hope for I suppose. I don’t want people to read the book in sequence. It’s best read on the toilet, or if you watch teevee, commercial breaks. I have this thing I like to do of making mock-ups or prototypes of my projects. When I think of a book I want to make, I always put together a little prop book for myself. Sometimes that involves designing a potential cover for the book and gluing it on an existing book. It cheers me to be able to see it “finished”, even if it’s fake. It suggests that an end might be in sight, and encourages me to keep going. Anyway, when I was first knocking Heartbreaker out, I put it together the way I wanted – with one poem per page. I printed the whole thing out, and it used very little toner, actually. Then I three-hole punched each page, and pushed these long bolts through each hole, but not before wrapping it in cardboard, which I had to trim. Then I screwed some bolts on the other side, and voila, I had a huge book. In the end I couldn’t fit all 1600 poems in the book because I couldn’t find bolts that were long enough to accommodate 1600 pages. The longest they came in at the diameter that I needed was 6 inches. That’s only about 1200 pages or so. Oh, I almost forgot – I sanded the edges of the book to make it all fuzzy. Imagine 1600 pages of possible papercuts! Yikes. The cover painting, design, and even the back cover copy is amazingly reflective of the Tjia sensibility. How did that happen? The cover painting is hanging in my living room. My friend Margaux Williamson painted it. She’s brilliant. We went to art school together and now she lives in Toronto. The book looks the way it looks because like I said, I like to make a mock-up beforehand and when I was finally resigned to putting ten per page, me and Bill Kennedy, who edited the book, and who designed it, sat down and had a big meeting. I showed him my mock-up and said that I wanted it to look like a CD. I like to walk through music stores and look at album cover art and it’s always irked me that more books don’t look like CDs. Not all CDs need to have words on the cover, either. And they get to be square. There is something very satisfying in being square. There seems to be a freedom in album design that’s missing for books. I’m not sure why. Anyway, we haggled it out. Bill was very cool. He improved my initial design tonnes. He used awesome fonts. I’m not nearly so imaginative. I would have just used Times for the cover. For the inside, we haggled some more. Then Bill suggested we kind of move the poems around a bit, so every page was random, the way that a bunch of pigeons fly in a group, but the weight is always different. And it looked and felt right. Working with Bill was great. The back cover was another conversation between me and Alana Wilcox, Coach House’s editor. She wrote most of it, then I went through it and tried to tweak it so that it sounded like me. I was always fascinated by Pig-Pen in Charlie Brown because whatever he touched started to resemble him. This is not to say that I would like Pig-Pen in my life, or staying at my apartment, but I carry a fascination for his ability to transform things into him. I mean, it’s kind of a horrific talent too, but I suppose it’s all in the way you look at it. Anyway, so I kind of “pig-penned” the back cover blurb, and that’s the way it ran. At one point I wanted the back cover blurb to be a pseudohaiku. And that’s it. No copy. Just, “Open./Intimate./Odd.” the way it is at the beginning of the blurb. I thought about having my bio be a pseudohaiku. The dedication. The copyright page. Everything. But then I reconsidered. It might have been really alienating. So I compromised again. And I think it was the right thing to do. I mean, the book was weird enough. I was happy to have a back cover blurb that sort of held people’s hand as they navigated my short poems. The pseudohaikus run the wit gamut from charmingly funny, darkly funny, to feel-bad-that-you-laugh funny. Is there a place you want to take people, and is humour your bait? I have a very dark sense of humour. I don’t think I want to take people anywhere in particular – maybe home, depending on the person – but I agree that humour is a very compelling lure. It’s funny because I’ve never considered myself very funny. Funny weird, yes. But funny ha-ha, no. But it’s very odd because I think I’m getting funnier as I get older. My parents tell me I was very funny as a kid. I smiled a lot. I laughed. I hardly every cried. I joked a lot. And then I hit puberty and entered high school and wanted to kill myself every day. That’s probably where my dark humour comes from. But it’s all seemed to balance out. And humour fascinates me. What a charming medium. They always talk about poetry being dead, and like, Irony being dead, but they never talk about humour being dead. Poetry is like this zombie. It dies every year but keeps coming back. Poetry is the living dead. Irony is just sad. But humour, humour’s warm. Dark humour is like a tumor. It’s warm but it’s killing you. ~~~ The World is a Heartbreaker is available here. Sherwin’s blog has lots of great reading and you can check out some of his comics here.