I have never interviewed anyone before, and so when the opportunity arose through R13 to sit and have a chat with John K. Samson, frontman for Winnipeg's post-punk ├╝bergroup the Weakerthans, I was excited and rather nervous. Inside The Astoria it was dark and hardly private as security people and bartenders marched back and forth noisily setting things up, but John didn't seem to mind, and neither did I, and so we sat down.

I explained hastily that I found his work with Arbeiter Ring Publishing fascinating because I once worked for a publishing house in Toronto, Canada. Intrigued, John asked which house, and laughed at my reply of "ECW Press."

"Yes, Jack David? Right?" he queried me.
"Yes! That's right."
"We know Jack. We had him out to Winnipeg a few years ago to sort of teach us the ropes."
"Yeah, he's been doing it a long time."

We laughed at the coincidence, and, to be honest, I was completely dumbfounded. To have been connected in this strange, minute way to one of my childhood idols was profoundly satisfying, although it did little to calm my nerves. I've listened to Samson since his days with Propagandhi, and I've been introducing people to his poetry and music since I was a teenager, and to sit and ask him about ... anything, felt somehow otherworldly. To use his words, "I don't know what to do with my hands when I talk to you." Nervous nervous nervous, and I rarely get nervous.

It was a vastly strange event, really. Two Canadians in London, England, having a conversation on behalf of an English music website, and chatting about Canadian book publishing. We talked for about 45 minutes, about poetry, music, art, and the guts behind John's work. I tried to get a deeper understanding of what makes him tick artistically, and I think the interview manages to poke its head inside his world, if not perfectly, then at least well enough to be worth reading if you are a fan of poetry, the Weakerthans, or John Samson himself.

R13 - I haven't gotten a chance to buy the new album, Reunion Tour, yet because it hasn't been out in shops here yet
John K - Mmm hmm, it didn't come out until, I guess last Tuesday.
R13 - But I wanted to ask if it opened with a Catherine Hunter quote again?
John K - No, it doesn't.
R13 - So that's the first one that doesn't
John K - No, only Left and Leaving did, and Fallow, and Reconstruction Site had two different quotes...
R13 - From the Obituary of Earl Russell.
John K - That's right! Yeah, yeah.
R13 -That was an interesting quote.
John K - that was a good one, yeah. I don't know ... that to me was ... it kind of summed up to me what I think about how art is made. Making a pair of pants that you have to keep trying on. But umm, yeah, no, the new quote, the quote on this record is from, oh, Jesus, I'm blanking on his name, hah! I'm sorry. I'm tired. An American poet. Fuck, sorry, I can't remember.
R13 - That's alright. [We laugh]. It reminds me of a novel, though, because often a novel will start with a quote.
John K- I've always liked that about books, yeah, books that start with kind of an epigraph like that.
R13 -I've read interviews where you've said you prefer literature and that you own way more books than you do music.
John K - That's true, I mean, I love music, but books are kind of my first love for sure, yeah.
R13 -So I have questions from each album, so you might not even remember what some of these things were about, but I've loved your music for a long time so it'd be great to ask you about some things from your earlier records.
John K - Oh, nice.
R13 - So, the first song on Fallow, "Illustrated Bible Stories for Children", I was just wondering if you could talk about that song? Because it's quoting Samson Agonistes, right?
John K - Yeah, yeah. I guess I was kind of playing with the idea of my own name, and the myth that I think about sometimes just because... it's my name, haha. And, yeah, just kind of a little reference exercise, trying to think about the struggle to be a good person in the world.
R13 - And you change Milton's quote at the end. Is that just to make it sound right?
John K - It didn't scan, yeah. Hahahahaha, yeah [laughing].
R13 -That's awesome, I've had that question for a long time, so it's exciting to get the answer!
John K - Hahahhaa, yeah, what is it Milton says? Milton writes "eyeless in Gaza," what is it, "at the mill with the slaves", and it just didn't work, hahaha. I just put "with the slaves at the mill."
R13 -And have you ever played the song "Fallow" live?
John K - Yeah, we have, and the band keeps asking me to play it again, and I just find it really hard to play, so I keep saying 'no', but that's one of my favourite ones, actually. That's probably my favourite song on that record, probably, I think that was kind of a breakthrough for me, that song, I don't know why but it was kind of a ... yeah, I liked that one.
R13 - Yeah, it was my favourite one on Fallow, too.
John K - Oh, cool.
R13 -And I have a release from Hopeless records, a country version of "Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist", and I was wondering if you'd ever do the country version of that song live?
John K - Probably not, no. We play that one just straightforward live, actually, yeah it's the only song we play off of Fallow.
R13 -I wanted to know, Civil Elegies by Dennis Lee...
John K - Oh, yeah?
R13 -Are you guys referencing that a little with "Civil Twilight"?
John K - No, but I love that poem. Hmm, maybe I thought about that, yeah, because that's a book I go back to quite often, actually, yeah, it's a great book, and a great kind of, yeah, i think of it as a great template for thinking about the city in a poetic way, yeah, for sure, that's interesting. But no, I was thinking about that liminal period between the sun setting and actual darkness occurring, it's kind of a magical time when you feel kind of in between things and can look at the world in a different way, in a different light.
R13 -And "Slips and Tangles", was that written by Christine Fellows?
John K - No, that was written by me, a really long time ago, like when i was seventeen or something, and we just started playing it for fun in the studio, and then recorded it, live actually, and that was, that was nice, that was just one of those times that something just comes together in a nice way.
R13 -And did Ian Blurton produce that as well?
John K - He did, yeah.
R13 - And he produced Reunion Tour as well?
John K - Yeah. I like him a lot. He's a great thinker.
R13 -- I've only ever seen you play "Exiles Among You" live once - do you play that one often?
John K - No, not that often. It's kind of a work out, actually, [laughs] you know, it's kind of really emotional, that one for me, I don't know why, I don't know, it just seems really intense. I don't know why. So, if we get to the end of the night and we don't have anything left to play it's kind of hard to play that one. It's so draining. But yeah, I like playing that one, too, just for special occasions though.
R13 -Yes, I saw you play it in Toronto. Oh, and is it based on Kroetsch's book on exiles?
John K - No, I was actually thinking of Christiana Gunner's book called Exiles Among You, I really like her a lot, she's a transplanted Icelandic poet and she lives on the prairies generally, maybe Vancouver now, I can't remember, and she wrote a great book called, maybe it's just a poem called Exiles Among You. Can't remember. It might just be a poem not a whole book, but yeah, it's a great piece, so, and i just love the thought of that. Yeah, I guess I should have credited her. I forgot! [laughs]
R13 -And the person in the song: I'm assuming they've gone to the West Coast (of Canada)?
John K- Yeah, I think of it as kind of ... Winnipeggers either go to Toronto or Vancouver, and in my late teens and early twenties a lot of people went to Vancouver, and some of them didn't come back, and it was sort of, you know, they didn't come back in a lot of different ways, so it's kind of a song about that.
R13 -And I've brought something for you that you might get a kick out of. Marcel Dzama is sort of part of your arts collective?
John K - Well I know him, yeah, he's a sweetheart. He lives in New York now.
R13 -Because The Independent put his cousin's art in its Sunday art magazine, so I thought you'd get a kick out of it. His paintings are so funny.
John K - Yeah, he's great. I just saw him in New York.
R13 -And what is it about the Winnipeg scene that makes it such a hot spot for Canadian art?
John K - I guess so, I don't know. There's a lot of theories on that, but I think it's probably just because people just have to invent their own culture there, because it's still sort of a marginalised city geographically and population wise. It's still kind of small, so people have to create their own fun, and there's a space to do it, so, yeah, that might have something to do with it, but I'm not sure.
R13 -And is Ralph Chaplin still sort of a big influence on what you're writing lately?
John K - You know what, I can't say that he is. I don't really know his work except for the Solidarity Forever hymn. I feel bad about that. I've never really looked into it.
R13 -That's all I know by him, too.
John K - Yeah, me too. I'm not sure. Marx and Engels still get the job done for me, but, yeah I'm not sure about Ralph.
R13 -Karl Marx is buried here.
John K - I know! I went, a couple times ago I went to Highgate Cemetery.
R13 -It's an intense thing, the tombstone.
John K - YEAH! The giant head! Haha, I thought it was kind of sweet, all the Marxists buried around him. I guess a lot of people who were driven from their home countries to here who were Marxists got buried kind of near Marx's grave. I found it sweet.
R13 -And do you do any work with Propagandhi still?
John K - No, it's been 11, no, 12 years since I worked with them.
R13 -And you went to Iceland for a poetry -
John K - Yeah, I went to sort of a writer's retreat there in 2001, so I wrote a lot, or some, of the songs on Reconstruction Site got their start there, yeah, so, that was really nice. In the north on a fjord in this little town and I had a room to myself. It was great.
R13 -And your heritage is Icelandic?
John K - Yeah, I'm half Icelandic, so it's a big deal in my family that I went.
R13 -- And there's an Icelandic music night in London once a month.
John K - Cool, yeah, there's some incredible music from there.
R13 -And on Left and Leaving, there were two small videos. I could never access them. What were they?
John K - I can't say I remember. I thought that was Reconstruction Site, oh, wait, Left and Leaving ... they were just videos of us recording, I think.
R13 -And the song "Past Due", was written long before Reconstruction Site, yes?
John K - I don't know. I wrote those three linked sonnets, those are all sonnets, not too long before, maybe a year or two before.
R13 -Because on that Hopeless release there was an alternate version of "Past Due" on there.
John K - Oh, that's right, yeah. Different version. I forgot about that. But I don't think it was too long before Reconstruction Site ... oh, maybe it was, huh... that's a good point [contemplative].
R13 -And you wrote all three together?
John K - Yeah, it was the same kind of few-week period, where I wrote all the sonnets. I was writing a whole bunch of them and trying to link a few of them together for, yeah, for something linked. Yeah, so it came out of a maybe a month period.
R13 -And when you're writing in that sense, do you have music in your head when you're doing the sonnet?
John K - I didn't that time, no, I was just ... no, it was just the rhythm of the sonnet, yeah.
R13 -And I saw The Paperbacks play in Toronto. Did you want to talk about them?
John K - Well, they're a great band and they're friends of mine and I produced their last record, or helped produce it, yeah, I'm really... Doug's always been a big influence on me. We've been friends for ... fifteen years.
R13 -The new Paperbacks album was quite good (Chorus of Sparrows?) and they were great live.
John K - Yeah, they're great.
R13 -And they do a song called "Publish or Perish", is that a stab at the publishing industry?
John K - I think it's an academic critique. You know how academics have to, or, that's a phrase in academia, 'you have to publish or perish', to get their tenure. Yeah, it's a great song.
R13 -Have you ever considered academia?
John K - Not really. I went back to school for about a year to take a couple of courses, but I've never, I've never really had time, and I'm not very good at writing essays, so I haven't really gone back.
R13 -And Arbeiter Ring Publishing, I wanted to ask: it's a lot of socialist books?
John K - Yeah, and we just did our first novel, and we've been publishing some fiction and some more cultural studies, just trying to get a nice balance of a lot of things.
R13 -And it's starting to stand on its own?
John K - Yeah, yeah, for sure. Yeah, it's been a good year for us.
R13 -- And you're the publisher there?
John K - I'm the managing editor there, yeah.
R13 -What's that like?
John K - It's hard work but I really enjoy it. It's fun. I really like it.
R13 -Do you have to reject a lot of manuscripts?
John K - Yes, I do [laughing].
R13 -That sucks.
John K - Yes, that does suck [laughs], yeah.
R13 -- Participatory Economics, that you run Arbeiter Ring Publishing on, could you talk about that for me?
John K - It's not really a major concern for us anymore, I would say, but we kind of built the company on a model kind of espoused by an American thinker named Michael Albert, just this idea that all tasks are shared and everyone learns how to do every task. It's just kind of a very sensible way, and democratic way, to run a business.
R13 -Does it work in the band as well, do you think?
John K - Not really. I think on a smaller scale you don't really notice it, like it's kind of, you know, entities like a band just have a way of working themselves out, and that's the way we've done it with the Weakerthans for sure.
R13 -And I wanted to ask about "Elegy for Elsabet" and "Elegy for Gump Worsely" - are those associated at all, or are they both just elegies?
John K - They're just both elegies yeah. I don't think of them as connected really. Yeah, Elsabet was my great-aunt and she was partly-deaf and stayed on the farm after everyone else left to take care of her parents, so she's one of those figures that get lost in family histories and so yeah one of those people that I was interested in; marginalized by the fact that she was a woman and the fact that she was I guess slightly disabled in a way. And Gump Worsely was a hockey goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and I always just loved him and he died last year and so I started reading his obituaries and I found myself just trying to write something about him, so that was nice, too. It was fun to do.
R13 -And I have one of your poems, "Everything Will Be Ok", would you mind reading it for me?
John K - [reads poem] :




Everything Will Be Okay
It's always surprising, this sense
of relief. When you kiss me
unexpectedly, I'm reminded of
the time I left a shoe-box containing
ten or eleven thousand dollars on a
coffee table in a hotel lobby in Northern Italy.
I was between floors in the elevator,
staring at my reflection knowing something
was missing when I remembered what was,
and pushed every button and rolled through
the doors, sprinted hallways in search of the
universal symbol for stairs, barreled
down six flights, and found it
waiting there, untouched,
and haloed by the light
of late-afternoon.

R13 -Whenever I think of Northern Italy, I always think of Rainer Maria Rilke.
John K - Yeah, the Duino Elegies.
R13 -Did Rilke influence you at all for that poem?
John K - That actually happened to me in Northern Italy [laughs], and so I always thought about it, and it was this kind of nice ... that overwhelming sense of relief you have when you find something important that you've lost, and just how exciting that feeling is and how true love can be that way [laughing wryly], I'm afraid. It was just a, a nice way of thinking about that, but I've read a lot of Rilke and the Duino Elegies, and the Sonnets to Orpheus. Actually, there's a new translation out by a guy from here [London, UK] and I can't remember his name [Martyn Crucefix], but I've been reading A LOT of that.
R13 -And what have you bought from Foyle's? [John had a Foyle's Book Shop bag with him].
John K - [bag rustling] From Foyle's I got this, John Gray's Straw Dogs, I've just heard about him, I don't know much about him, and a Geoff Dyer book that I didn't have. I really love Geoff Dyer, and the collected poems of Derek Walcott. I thought that would be good for the bus.
R13 -And where are you guys off to next?
John K - We're going to Amsterdam tonight, and then all over Germany and parts of Northern Italy, and then back home.
R13 - [reading the Derek Walcott book] It's funny that Seamus Heaney is on there, because one of your new songs reminded me of a Seamus Heaney poem.
John K - Really?
R13 -Yeah, it was, I just read it ... it's like, using a word and then using it again but in a sentence, I'm not sure how it works ... I don't understand what's happening but it's something to do with tense, and you're doing the same thing when you say "I change the oils and oil the squeaks".
John K - Yeah.
R13 -And as soon as I heard your song, it reminded me of Heaney's poem ... the one where he's weaving a hoop?
John K - Right, right! I know the one you're talking about. Yeah, hmm, wow, I wonder if there's something subconsciously lifted from that, could be, I read a lot of Seamus Heaney. He's great, I mean, his sonnets are really ... I think he wrote some of the greatest sonnets ever, the sonnet sequence he wrote about his mother, especially, is just incredible.
R13 -And what did you think of the violence in Heaney?
John K - I don't know...
R13 -That's what shocked me, was just how out of nowhere there could be such horrible violence.
John K - There's violence, that's true, true. I don't know if I've ever really thought about it, haha, that's a good question.

R13 -And how did you get into publishing?
John K - Oh, on a whim, really, but if I'd known how much work it was going to be I don't know if I would have followed through with it, but a friend of mine and I just kind of started it, because we wanted to do it, you know, and he'd had some training in publishing and had worked in a couple of places ... and I had none, and we just kind of taught ourselves how to do it.
R13 -And did you always read a lot as a kid?
John K - I did, yeah. I've always liked books.
R13 -And what kind of stuff did you read as a kid?
John K - Geez, I don't know. I read everything ... I was just a voracious reader when I was a kid. I read a lot now, but not as much as probably I did when I was a teenager. It was just kind of a real solace and inspiration.
R13 -And did you go to university?
John K - No, I went for about six months when I was 18 and then I dropped out. I wasn't doing very well and I was going on tour anyway and then I went back when I was 27 or 28 for about a year and just took a couple of courses, so, no I haven't been.
R13 - It's not necessary, I don't think.
John K - Well, I don't know. I'd like to go someday, maybe, when I'm done bands and stuff.
R13 -Do you think there's a time when you will be done with bands?
John K - I don't know, I mean, eventually, probably, maybe not, maybe I'll just keep ... playing in bands. I think I'll do it on a much smaller scale, eventually, you know, when I'm a lot older. We'll see, yeah.
R13 -And you still live in Winnipeg? and Steve Carroll lives in Toronto?
John K - No, Steve lives in Winnipeg, and Greg and Jason live in Toronto.
R13 -And he works with the Fembots?
John K - Yeah, Jason, he's worked with them a lot and so does Greg, yeah they're a great band.
R13 - And how did you meet Greg?
John K - That's a good question, you know. I guess my wife Christine Fellows was playing with him and with Mark Tielli, and we just kind of knew each other from around and I always really liked him, and liked the way he plays, and he's just a really sweet, and a great, guy.
R13 -And how did you start working with Ian Blurton?
John K - You know, we just liked his records and called him up and asked him to produce Left and Leaving, so, I'd never met him before that, so that was just luck.
R13 -And on Fallow is that you doing the guitar, on the album?
John K - I play all the guitar on Fallow, actually, yeah, because that was before Steve was in the band, so, yeah.
R13 -Cool, because I remember seeing you in Guelph and you were doing the solo for "Utilities", and you were nervous-
John K - Haha, yeah, yeah!
R13 -And you said 'this is my first solo'.
John KM - Hahaha, that's true.
R13 -And you had that line 'beards against bush' for your new beard and politics, haha.
John K - Hahaha, thats right. That was a while ago, yeah.
R13 -It became a catch phrase for a lot of kids.
John K - Hahaha well, thanks.
R13 -And could you talk about "Utilities" for me?
John K - Sure, yeah, I thought it would be a nice way to close the record with a with a song about the idea that maybe we never really connect with any other human being in our lives, but trying to make that connection is probably the only thing worth doing, so that's kind of the thesis for that. Yeah, trying to be useful in the world. It's a good thing to strive for.
R13 -And does it drive you nuts when kids sing along to your lyrics during shows?
John K - No, I love it. No, I love that. It's sweet.
R13 -And I wanted to ask about Clive Holden?
John K - Oh! Yeah, Clive's a good friend of ours. Yeah, he's a great artist. He lives in Toronto now, and he's making movies.
R13 -Oh, he's making movies now?
John K - Yeah, I think he's making a movie right now.
R13 -That's interesting, because Trains Of Winnipeg is obsessed with this idea of failed films.
John K - Yeah, and he made Trains of Winnipeg into a film, too, and it's really great, actually. You should try and see that if you can.
R13 -And if I wanted to see that, where could I go?
John K - On his website, actually, www.cyclopspress.com
R13 -And could you talk about Al Purdy for me?
John K - Sure. I really love Al Purdy. I've always loved his work. A great vernacular poet, I think, and he's got, he has a real ... I still read him for a real pulse on Canadian language.
R13 -Something about his accent is just magic, and I hear it in your voice, and Clive Holden's voice, as well.
John K - Yeah, I love hearing Purdy read. It's a great ... yeah, he does have that great unique voice.
R13 -And what about Alden Nowlan?
John K - Oh yeah, I loved Alden Nowlan, or I do love him, yeah, he's great, yeah a great East Coast poet, and I think probably one of the greatest Canadian poets ever, and still a little overlooked, and I think probably because he was from the East Coast he was kind of marginalised in that way. I think regionally he was kind of marginalised, and those are the kind of writers I'm always interested in.
R13 -And how did you get to work on the Trains of Winnipeg project?
John K - Oh, Clive was just around. He's a friend of mine and asked me to help him out and I gladly did.
R13 -- And how did you know, or at what age did you know that poetry was something that ...
John K - I guess I always did ... it's kind of always what I strove for. I can't remember not reading poetry, and I guess it started for me ... I was a church kid and I went to church for the music and the language in that music and then kind of at the same time listening to kindergarten anthems and schoolyard chants and, yeah, it all came together for me like that to make me think that, yeah, language is, music and language put together are what I love, so, yeah, good company. Poetry is good company.
R13 -And what poets are big for you right now?
John K - I really love Ken Babstock a lot. I've been reading all of his stuff. A Toronto poet. And Karen Solie, she's from the Prairies. I'm really fond of her work. Yeah, those are two big ones for me right now.
R13 -And the first song on Reconstruction Site, what are you striving for when you say you 'want to call requests through heating vents and hear them answered with a whispered 'no''? is it just a sense of entrapment, or ...?
John K - No, I think of it more like, the fact that we're all looking for answers to our requests, and I don't think there's anyone there to answer a lot of them, and if there was something there to answer those questions the answers wouldn't be what we wanted to hear anyway so we should take some comfort in the absence of a structured meaning to the universe and that there can be some comfort in that, yeah, that even if you want the answers the answers aren't going to be what you want to hear, and therefore, hahaha go for it [laughs].
R13 -- That's interesting that you say 'absence' because when I think of Weakerthans themes, based on the whole discography, I think of departures, absence, lack ...
John K - Sure, yeah, that's funny, that's true, I hadn't really thought of it that directly, but, yeah, it's true.
R13 -And how long will your European tour be?
John K - Another three weeks or so and then we'll be home for Christmas [pronounced Christmass, quirkily], so that'll be fun, and then we're home for most of the winter.
R13 -And how was the show that you did with the Tragically Hip, in Toronto?
John K - We did a few of them. It was fun, yeah, I really love that band and they're really sweet sweet people, so, yeah, it was fun. I wouldn't want to do it everyday, but it was a lot of fun playing with them.
R13 -- Is it a different vibe?
John K - Yeah, it's totally different, but also audiences were quite warm and accommodating, so...
R13 -And did Buck65 play with you?
John K - Yeah he did a couple of those shows, yeah Rich, yeah.
R13 -And what was he like?
John K - He's awesome, yeah. He's great.
R13 - I like his poetry, as well.
John K - Yeah, me too.
R13 - He has a thing with cataloguing. He lists everything in his life. He puts everything into lists; did you notice that at all?
John K - I did, yeah, and I do the same thing kind of, I'm a real list-writer, too [wryly].
R13 - Is that right?
John K - Yeah, I think so. When I think about some of the songs I do, they're kind of like, real lists, but, yeah, I like that kind of. Yes, Rich is, I mean Buck65 is awesome.
R13 - Rich Terfry, yeah, Buck65. And do you like the idea of becoming more popular?
John K - I like it this way. I'm happy with the way things are.
R13 - Maintaining your integrity?
John K - Yeah, well, it's, I think it's fine the way it is. I like it this way, so ...
R13 - And do you find that this album is more experimental?
John K - I don't know. I'm not sure if that's true or not. It's not really for me to say. I don't think ... we just make the records [laughs] and I guess other people can decide how they fit in context with the other records, so, I'm not sure, I'm think it's a good question, but I'm not sure if I know the answer ...
R13 - And in Reconstruction Site are you quoting Pink Floyd when you say 'I watch the sunrise sinking'? and you're quoting that book as well, right?
John K - Yes, Martin Amis, Time's Arrow. Yeah, I've never thought about the Floyd reference, actually. That's interesting. I love them [pink floyd] but, yeah, it's true. I haven't thought about it...

And so the end of my encounter with one of my heroes. My question pattern has been replicated here exactly, and so it is obvious that I was nervous and erratic in my queries, but, I also learned some interesting things about Samson, and heard his opinions on some points of interest that I have never heard him comment on in any other interviews.

I recall being about seventeen years old and thinking about what his politics were really all about. I think I believed he was a political activist who wrote clever love songs and broadly poetic laments for things that everyone loses. After meeting him, I felt that I was right in my opinions from long ago.

I was worried that his ideologies were burned out and become pragmatic. After meeting him and chatting, I've realised that my fears were good ones. Whatever rebel spirit that existed in him has changed with age, but not in any bad ways, only in the necessary ones. I left the interview feeling rather blessed with the privilege of meeting someone I admired, who, it turned out, was just as normal and real as me.