I Am A City But Soon I Shan’t Be

CapU instructor Roger Farr discusses his newly published book of poetry

Beth McCloy // Contributor

Roger Farr, an English and Creative Writing instructor at Capilano University, actively promotes the avant-garde in his work both as an educator and poet.  Through his work, Farr strives to stimulate the creative spirit that inhabits us all.

Roger Farr’s new book, I Am A City But Soon I Shan’t Be, was written over a ten-year period and is an expression of the experience of the derive in poetic form.  Like the derive, the poem drifts through various cities (New York, Berlin, Nanaimo, Vancouver, and others) observing the objects and people that inhabit those spaces. The poem is a phenomenological work that describes the author’s encounters with the cities he explored using psycho-geographical research.  I Am A City But Soon I Shan’t Be is a complex, layered rendering of Farr’s state of being in city spaces where urban landscapes are dark and threatening. It’s no coincidence that Farr structured his poem using Dante’s nine spheres of hell—his observations of the cities he wandered through reminded him of hellish scenes and terrifying nightmares.

BM: Let me begin by congratulating you on the recent release of your new book, I am a City But Soon I Shan’t Be.  Having struggled naming my own creative projects, I was curious about where you got the inspiration for the title of your book?

RF: Thank you Beth. I think I recognize the struggle you mention. I hate titles and entitlement. Titles exercise far too much power over a text. They frame it, code it, interpret it, etc. Up there at the top of the page, looking down on all the other words…

This book has had many titles. For a while it was called “604.” Then it was called “City Stream”. Then something else. The current title is actually a quotation from the German avant-garde poet and dramatist Bertolt Brecht. The “I” speaking in the title is London, immediately before The Blitz in 1940. It appears in Brecht’s War Primer.

BM:What was your inspiration in writing the poem?

RF: This is a hard question to answer because the project took so long to complete I can’t recall why I began it! At times over the last few years it didn’t feel “inspired.” I would get up grudgingly every day at 5:30 and work on it, often getting only a line or two.  All I can say is that the idea of using the concept of “the city” to organise a long poem has held a strange command over my imagination, and my dreams, for many years. In hindsight, I see that I had to leave the city to complete it. I did that in 2004.

BM: Where did the idea for your poem come from?

RF: George Oppen’s astonishing poem about New York, Of Being Numerous, was an early influence. But the poem emerged from my study of the Surrealists and the Situationists, in particular the latter’s writing on the city, and what they called “psychogeography.” In 2000, when I was a graduate student at SFU, I wrote an essay on the surrealist city novel in which I coined, unknowingly, the term “psychogeographical novel.” I couldn’t find a publisher for the essay at the time so I posted it on my faculty page where it attracted the attention of some very astute readers. Around that time I began to rethink the writing and research I had done and started to experiment with poetic forms for it. For a whole bunch of reasons, though, I was not able to give the poem the attention it needed until about five years ago. 

BM: You mentioned that your poem took ten years to write. What was the process of writing like? Were there any changes in your life over the course of those ten years that influenced the nature of the poem or even changed it? 

RF: Oh yes! For one, I moved with my son into a small (if not “tiny”) cottage on a large shared acreage in Snuneymuxw territory. This space, and this land, has proven to be extremely creative. I have completed two books of poetry and I am almost done editing collection of anarchist writing on sexuality in only two and half years there. But during the composition of this book, I also went through a difficult period of what we can call “personal losses”. Writing the book gave me a sense of order amidst a lot of grief I think. This is not thematized in the book at all. But the book is part of that process, in ways I likely don’t yet see. My next book is very different. It deals with death directly, through “gallows humour.”

BM: Explain the concept of psychogeography and how it framed your work.  

RF: The term “psychogeography” was coined by the Situationist International in the 1950’s to describe a practice used to illuminate hidden forces and currents —ideological, mythological, psychological, geological —that affect our experience of life in the city. The means by which psychogeographical research is carried out is the dérive, defined by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behavior of the individual.” Dérive means literally to draw from a flow, to follow a stream, a river. In the practice of the dérive, “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” To let oneself “be drawn by the attractions of the terrain” is to follow the ebb and flow of space and time freed from habit; it is to open oneself to anomalous experiences: the strange, the unannounced, the forgotten, the repressed, the marvelous. 

My book is composed of a series of such “drifts” through various cities and urban spaces, and returns to images of streams and rivers and “flows” —economic, libidinal, urban, etc —throughout.

BM: What were some of the surprises you discovered in your explorations of the cities that inspired your writing?

RF: So many…mostly unusual encounters with people. But I also tried to turn some of the more quotidian and banal patterns and textures of urban life into strange and unfamiliar scenes. I had to break with my habitual patterns of movement and seek out locations that held some kind of unusual ambience or atmosphere. Wandering the city at pre-dawn was my preferred time, mostly because I am a trained and dedicated early riser, but also because the light is so dramatic. Everything looks different at that hour.

BM: There is a negative tone about cities that runs through your work—you seem to not like cities very much, or at least, you are not very comfortable in them.  What would you like to see the cities of the future become so that you might be enticed to return to urban dwelling?

RF: I would like to see the cities seized by artists, poets, anarchists and freaks, and transformed into immense theme parks geared towards providing pleasures we have not yet discovered. The parks should be turned into Erotic Gardens. Each day would begin with a Pride parade. Everything would be free. Entire city blocks would be dedicated to the happiness of children and the elderly. There would be no police.

BM: You are the convenor of the creative writing program at Cap— what is that?  Why did you decide to become a teacher? What do you want to communicate about life to your students and to those who read your books?

RF: The Creative Writing Program is currently a two year Associate of Arts Degree with ambitions and plans that I am not supposed to talk about!

I became a teacher because I like being around students. Teaching allows me to research and share my creative projects and interests. I also feel like I’m doing something practical and useful.

As for my thoughts about life, I’ll have to do some more thinking and writing get back to you on that one!

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