1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first trade book isn’t yet a year old, so I’m still finding out how it’s changing my life. I think it’s safe to say not dramatically. It’s the logical weigh station on a road that I’d been on for ten years – more really. And It’s not sent me – yet anyway – careening off in another direction. Though I do have cravings to do other things. Like theatre.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn’t come to poetry first. It’s more where I’ve ended up – at least for now. Throughout elementary and high school I liked writing in different forms. I did amateur theatre in high school, and again when I got to Whitehorse. Guitar and songwriting realized a level of commitment new to me in my late teens, and that carried me through my early twenties. Through that same period I was into photography and printing photos when a darkroom was handy. I wrote a some short (slight) scripts and a couple of short stories, and around that same time stopped songwriting and really dedicated my time to poems. And then I started getting poems published, and then I had kids and found my limited creative time required a level of focus that hadn’t restricted me to one medium before. Like any restriction I’ve had to innovate to keep moving, and I think the poems have benefited from that.
When I imagine myself as an old man, he’s a poet, but when I was twenty-one, I never would have believed that a guitar would cease to be a central object in my life.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Poems come to me in different ways but these days almost always slowly, and over time. If I can figure out early what the shape of the poem is, that greatly increases the chance that it become one; likewise, if I know what the poem is going to do. These two things, shape and effect are entwined, and are essential for my writing in a way that subject really isn’t. Thinking: I’m going to write a poem about the time I stopped the escalator as a kid, or having a stroke, or the raven that is right now shrieking on the back fence, is almost never fruitful. Unless it arrives with it’s own form or function. I’m going to write a poem that loops and goes up like an escalator—then suddenly stops: that’s a much more hopeful beginning.
Sometimes the shape of the poem can change substantially even after I think it’s finished. A poem called Slow Boat from Slant Room was a loose sestina for quite a while before it fractured along more natural fault lines – it really wasn’t a sestina, but thinking it was helped me to get it down, and in the finished version the ghost of a sestina provides it with a cyclical repetition that suits the poem.
A new line of poetry sometimes comes into my head like a melody I might hum (especially when walking), but almost none of these lines – which I always write down – ever find their way into (or become) a poem.
Not copious notes, but copious drafts.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? 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?
Where a poem begins: see above.
Poems or books? Both. Slant Room and it’s four-section form was not predetermined. Two of the sections are galleries—collections of stuff stylistically linked. And the other two sections were conceived as suites. Off and on through the time I was writing the stuff that became Slant Room—and ongoing now—I’ve been working on a long narrative poem which—assuming I finish it—would be a book on it’s own.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings, though I don’t do them that often – maybe two to four a year? Reading publicly is part of my creative process, but separate from the writing. I prepare ahead, make a set list that has an internal logic and arc. I’ll rehearse the set, sometimes make substitutions or take a poem out. A reading gives me the chance to take stock of the poems, and for sure the response (or lack of response) from an audience feeds into that. Sometimes reading has left me feeling kind of agitated, but a good reading is extremely cathartic.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
‘Theoretical concerns,’ suggests that I know what I’m trying to say, which I usually don’t. There are exceptions, but usually writing a poem is the discovery of how to say something. And once its down I can rarely paraphrase and put to prose what that something is in any satisfying way—attempts tend to leave me humiliated. I definitely have preoccupations, but I don’t have anything really remarkable—certainly not new—to say about them. I think there’s something about making connections and parallels across different fields (metaphor). In a philosophical mode this can point me towards a view of universal oneness—joyful and terrifying depending on the approach. Certainly the fact that we are using up the earth (even if you don’t believe, specifically in climate change, I think it’s hard to argue with this). That feeds into a lot of my poems. I aspire to be an activist, but my poems don’t really work out that way. Getting a poem right is kind of the best that I can do, when I can manage it.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t know about this. I think imagination is undervalued and underused, but don’t see this as the exclusive domain of writers and other artists. I think people need to be deeply committed and introspective in their lives. To see our actions as meaningful beyond ourselves—empathy and understanding of the world. These are things writing can help provide (also humour, fun, entertainment…) but I don’t see writers as a special category. Great writing enriches the world because of its greatness. Most of us are bricks and mortar and very occasionally someone sends up a spire.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My experience here is pretty thin. Of course the process and its value will vary widely depending on the editor (and the poet), but I do think it should be sometimes difficult. Over time working with the same editor I imagine you could build a relationship of trust that might ease that difficulty: namely is the editor right about this or not? I asked Zach Wells to edit the last section of my book, a suite of seventeen sonnets called, Fugue. He pointed out that I overused pronouns, often as metrical padding. This was fairly easy to see the truth in, and was useful when I went through the rest of the book. Another comment was harder to swallow: he said that the final sonnet in the poem took a self-conscious, writerly angle that, in its penultimate position diminished the rest of the suite. This was difficult news, but it didn’t take long to realize that he was right. It was over some months that I found the ending that the poem now has. I didn’t agree with all the opinions that Zach had for Fugue—though most of them were bang-on, and certainly the poem is better for his involvement.
My brother Brett edited Slant Room, from the position of someone with a specialization in grammar, but he doesn’t read poetry. Poetry can create its own grammar, so it wasn’t usually a case of saying this is wrong, but saying this is what’s happening here. This was very useful as well, and resulted in lots of changes.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Create a routine. Stick to it.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My days begin when Rue, our four-year-old daughter climbs into our bed. Mostly this is around seven-o’clock, which is much better than six. I work twenty-eight hours a week doing outreach for adults with disabilities. The schedule is flexible. My approach is to work Monday to Friday, leaving early to pick up the kids (we also have a boy, Syth, who’s six) when my wife Jenny is working or has a class. The routine in my writing week is Thursday morning after dropping Syth at school. I go to a coffee shop, plug into some lyric-free music and write, pen and paper, for four hours (or sit there with pen in hand and take a stab at the paper every once in a while). When I have holes in my client schedule, or have a cancellation, I’ll grab few hours other weekdays as well. Evenings I transcribe and edit, catch up on correspondence, but seldom do much new writing. Right now I’ve also been getting a regular Saturday morning when Jenny takes the kids to swimming lessons. I don’t have a lot of uninterrupted time for writing, the upside of which is that I’m always hungry for it.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When inspiration comes, I’m not looking; I don’t have much luck conjuring it. Perseverance and patience are where I turn when I’m stalled, and when patience is spent I psychically eviscerate myself.
12 - What do you really want?
Just a little bit more.
13 - 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?
Definitely all of the above.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve got this anthology that my grandpa gave me as a kid, most of which I never read, and most of what I read I didn’t ‘get.’ The World by Henry Vaughan is in there, I still don’t get much of the biblical allusion, but something about the cadence of the poem moved me, and I used to read it regularly trying to penetrate the meaning. I see now that meaning is overrated—the music of the poem stayed with me. Eliot, at a later stage was also formative—especially Four Quartets.
John Thompson and Robert Bringhurst provided, among other things, different ways to approach a long poem. And Carolyn Forché’s Blue Hour provided another. And Mark Strand.
This is a buckshot answer to your question.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to spend a year walking, sleeping somewhere different each night.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I might have picked an art that provided some sort of paycheque—though I think this would turn out to be an unhappy arrangement. I’ll say gardener.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with it’s matryoshka doll structure really blew me away as I read it, but I think I’ve kind of used it up. The Master by Colm Tóibín is a fictional account of parts of the life of Henry James it’s heartbreaking, I’ll read it again.
For film Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (come to think of it there’s a Russian doll structure in that as well). This blew me away at the concept level, but also had a real depth of emotion—and great acting, and funny. Loved it.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m keeping the windows open for anything new. And I’m immersed in the long poem I mentioned above. It’s called Trout’s Account, a narrative poem that picks up the story of Tom Thomson just after his death by drowning, and carries it through the eight days until his body is found.