How I Wrote It

Griffin Poetry Prize finalist Donato Mancini explores the nature of changing language in his latest collection

The poet and literary critic discusses how he wrote Same Diff, which is vying for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Donato Mancini's Same Diff is on the 2018 shortlist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. (talonbooks)

Donato Mancini is a poet and literary critic from Vancouver. His book Same Diff maintains a record of slow and subtle changes in language and how they amplify over time according to political, social and economic whims. Same Diff is on the Canadian shortlist for the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize.

In his own words, Mancini tells CBC Books how he wrote the poetry collection. 

Form in motion

"The first glimmer of this book appears on the horizon in about 2002, as I got absorbed into work on my first book, Ligatures. I see Same Diff as completing a creative arc, or as being a major rest-point in a trajectory that began way back then. The 'kernel' the two books share, includes: A) The use of generative forms that create a sense of perpetual motion — kind of like rudimentary algorithms off-computer, or what they used to call 'aleatory.' B) Lists curated in a particular way that engages the history and function of the verse line. C) Multi-page works arranged in a montage, not with narrative or dramatic but with experiential/sensory design in mind."

Apparent coherence

"Almost every single line in this book is a quotation, or is my paraphrase/gist of another text. To quote myself, 'This is not me speaking.' Take Snowline as an example: I was a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at the time and had access to a service that allowed me to borrow books from far-flung libraries. Without that I could not have compiled Snowline, because many of the 90+ books I accessed are rare and not searchable online. It took at least a year to put together, borrow by borrow, after first scouring every record I could for full translations of François Villon's poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis.

"As for 'enough,' in this case the internal structure of the poems made those decisions. Snowline draws on all the translations of this poem I know exist, with one exception. Bottom of the Pot is organised to track a process of ideological conditioning and learning, so that its scale and proportions are determined internally, as it were. With works that have a more open-ended form (like those in my 2014 book Loitersack), it's not as easy to know when enough is enough — it's just a decision one makes, and which one might have made otherwise. Same Diff has few of those kinds of pieces. The material itself has its own coherence that usually told me just when to stop."

Tools of the trade

"I move back and forth between platforms — paper, screen, voice — toggling along from the beginning of the process through to its end. Initially, I write in longhand, but the super-typewriter known as the word-processor gets in soon enough. Some of the pieces in Same Diff, in particular, would have taken far, far too long to write without the networked resources that computers offer. Ambivalent as I am about the effects of computers on people's lives, on arts, on individual well-being, Same Diff is deeply a book of the computer age."

Reader empowerment

"Same Diff is a success if it haunts its readers in some way that contributes to change in their lives, their thinking, their structures of feeling — and in so doing helps them gain a sense of empowerment and perspective in times that feel so confused or even impossible. It is indeed intended as a weapon, as a mirror and as a shield."

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