His most recent books are Virtual Clearcut: Or, The Way Things Are In My Home Town, and Local Matters: A Defense of Dooney’s Café and Other Non-globalized Places, People and Ideas, both published in 2003 Virtual Clearcut won the 2004 Pearson Prize for non-fiction and was called “one of the best non-fiction books to ever come out of this country.” By Toronto’s Now Magazine.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life?
It didn’t. I made it in highschool and didn’t show it to anyone. It was called Killing Robins on Sunday Morning. Edition of two copies, which I understood made it a book and not a manuscript. If I’d shown it to anyone, I’d have been beaten up.
1a.) How does your most recent work compare to your previous?
Similarity: I haven’t shown that to anyone, either, and it’s about exactly the same subject: why do people hit one another? Differences: it’s now about 50,000 words, revised innumerable times, I have a contract and an advance for it, and I hope to hell it’s a little more sophisticated. Since it isn’t verse, it likely is.
1.b) How does it feel different?
Well, it’s bulkier, and the paper is shinier. I had a long love affair with mimeograph paper, which was more porous than laser paper in order to suck up the ink. Also, the current manuscript paper is yellow. Since I work on several books at once, I track them with different coloured paper. (That was three questions, not one.)
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Some friends of mine decided to kill a cat and hang it over a hated teacher’s front door. They went off and did it, I wrote a long, quite bad poem about it, and it was the most thrilling and satisfying thing I’d done to that point in my small life. From that moment on, life looked and felt different than it did before, and I took a different path. Since it was non-fiction, har, har, I embarked on my poetry career in exactly the right way even though I was essentially without tools. I was first and always an investigative poet. (See Ed Sanders Investigative Poetry.)
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project?
A long time, often years. At any given time I have about 45-70 “books” on my projects list, all in different stages of constructions. Usually the impediment is that I don’t know enough to write. Occasionally, as with the book I’m currently working on, it’s that I know too much.
3.a ) Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process?
Very slow. I’m actually not a very good writer. But I’m good at thinking, and I’m an extremely astute editor. I write in order to see what I can think through, so I don’t often get frustrated at my lousy first drafts. By the time I’ve edited and rethought it 40 times, It’ll be much smarter than I am. And hopefully, much smarter than the crap most of those first-thought-best-thought nincompoops produce.
3b.) Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The latter, and successive edits. My first drafts are always moronic.
4 - Where does a poem or piece of prose usually begin for you?
Usually at the top of the page.
4b. ) Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m very much a composition by field guy who works on multiple projects. I’m more interested in thinking than in having a dazzling and unique style, and really didn’t write a decent book until I stopped thinking about how I looked or my writing looked while I was doing it. Those things are for getting laid, if you think about it. To write anything worth reading, you have to be inside your subject, and more or less invisible to yourself and others. Unless all you’re really about is getting laid. That’s a lot of fun, too, by the way, but it ain’t literature.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Occasionally. If I have to do a reading, it sometimes makes me think about what the listeners are actually going to be hearing, and that can be an aid to composition.
5a. ) Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
No. I hate the public part of being a writer. I’m more or less clinically agoraphobic at this point in my life. I’ve never been a particularly strong public reader, and I’m occasionally afflicted with Newlove’s Disease (which is where to begin to hear the emotions you felt while writing a poem, lose sight of the audience, and start to weep at the sheer complexity and beauty of being alive).
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing?
Belief/Ideology and Art are mortal enemies. Not trying to demonstrate a theoretical proposition or create a museum artefact.
6.a What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
I’m investigating why people hit one another. It’s a fairly global problem.
6b. what do you even think the current questions are?
Everybody’s got their own: How beautiful am I? How smart am I? Is my dick long enough? Etc. I just told you what mine was, and that’s been it from the beginning. Okay, I’ve had moments of confusion where I thought maybe those questions I listed were important, but I’m clean now.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?
Poets are supposed to be the janitors of the language. Mostly they aren’t doing their job. Producing widgets for the book market isn’t a very interesting job to me. I’d rather sell real estate or assassinate people for money.
7.a) Does s/he even have one?
Not in this political economy. But there are advantages to writers having lost most of their audience. It means that we’re left alone to investigate human polity.
7b.) What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Stand up straight. Don’t make life shittier than it already is. Be kind to children and small dogs—the same things everyone else is supposed to do to avoid being dogs eating dogs. But also, wear silver suits, ride by the lake, slay dragons. I think writers are supposed to be culture heroes even when the system doesn’t want that, but you’re not allowed to chew on the scenery.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s essential. Two minds are always better than one. Any writer who experiences discomfort with the editing process is an amateur.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)?
I gave up publishing verse in 1983 when I realized that there were more poets than readers, and that verse was no longer a form of expression that could be heard. I had absolutely no difficulty moving on from there, because I have a healthy curiosity about the world.
10.) What do you see as the appeal?
Necessity. As Robert Creeley once said, (I’m paraphrasing) form should never be anything more than a means of extending content.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one?
Work every day, whether or not you’ve got anything. I don’t always do that, but I feel guilty when I don’t.
11b.) How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I awaken, now usually around 5:30 AM. Those first two hours of the day are your best, if you can learn how to get to them.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Drugs, booze, sex, criminal activities of a wide variety. As I’ve gotten older, though, those have lost some allure, so now I read. No one can write well without constant and programmatic reading. Sometimes you read to find things out, other times, you read to check out how other writers think things through.
13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?
My daughter. She’s 12. Then my sons, but these days, they’re rarely around. My wife. Then my dog. Then my laptop. Our first responsibility is to be human beings. Then we get to be writers.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
That’s horseshit, notwithstanding what I said in question 12. I’m not deeply influenced to write by other art forms. I’d be more likely to say that it comes from a decent chair to sit on while you’re writing, or by coffee and cigarettes. (I seem to be unable to close on a book without starting to smoke again, which makes writing a health hazard, I suppose.) I’d also say having a garden to putter around in is more important than listening to Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites while I’m writing, but that’s just an unimportant ideosyncracy.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is an impossible question to answer in less than 400,000 words, because like most writers, I’m the sum total of what I’ve read and who I’ve hung out with. The only writer I can’t do without would be Stan Persky. For the last 25 years or so, neither of us has published a single piece of serious writing that the other hasn’t read, edited and altered substantially. Stan jokes that we share a single brain between the two of us, and that both of us would be morons without the other. He’s probably right about this: I’m heterosexual, protestant-to-the-bone, and a blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon anarchist with ADD, a houseful of kids and a history of broken marriages who fixes messes. Stan is a homosexual communist Chicago Jew who’s asocial, and has lived most of his life alone so he can read in peace. We cover a huge patch of ground with this joint mind.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Sleep with an opera singer. I would have said the same thing when I was 30, actually. Hey, you’ve got to have something ridiculous and unattainable to look forward to.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
Being a writer, silly. I have to pick this every day. You’re only a writer while you’re writing.
17a.) Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m with Kierkegaard on this one. I’d have been a police detective.
A dead cat, like I told you. And curiosity. And the fact that I just can’t figure out why people hit one another.
19 - What was the last great book you read?
What was the last great film?:
Spike Lee’s Miracle At St. Annas interested and surprised me with its depiction of human solidarity.
20 - What are you currently working on?
None of your fucking business. I never talk about books I’m working on. Fastest way I know of to lose them.