Nicole Markotić lives in Windsor and is author of the novella Yellow Pages, the novel Scrapbook of My Years as a Zealot, and three poetry books, Connect the Dots, Minotaurs & Other Alphabets, and her latest book out this May from BookThug, Bent at the Spine. She has edited a collection of poetry by Dennis Cooley, By Word of Mouth, has worked as a freelance editor, and has edited special issues for the literary journals Open Letter and Tessera. She publishes a chapbook poetry series, Wrinkle Press, which includes work by Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, and Nikki Reimer. She was poetry editor for Red Deer Press for six years and has recently joined the NeWest literary board as one of its fiction editors.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m not sure publishing my first book changed my life, so much as starting to publish chapbooks, organize readings, really participate in the poetry community changed my life. By the time my first official book came out, it was almost an anti-climax, in that I had participated so much in the small-press publishing world. On the other hand, maybe the title of this book is a delayed reaction to, finally, getting a book out with a true “spine”!
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?Like most people, I wrote incredibly awful poetry in high school. No idea why I kept at it, but writing fiction at the time seemed too mundane, too realistic. Funny thing is, my fiction improved a lot sooner than my poetry. Luckily, I soon attended a week-long writing programme at Red Deer College, with bpNichol, Aritha van Herk, and Fred Wah. It was an amazing immersion.
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? 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?
Um, none of the above? When I steal the time, I can write under virtually any circumstances (at a computer, scraps of paper in the bus, in the same room as someone listening to the radio), but don’t necessarily start with brilliant ideas. I often play around with words I snatch from a completely different context than I’m trying to write about, to get me out of my old habits before I even start. I do a trillion edits and rewrites, so rarely do my poems resemble anything like what they started out. Most times, the poem goes nowhere, but at least gets me going. Sometimes, a poem begs for another, and then I’m in the middle of a series. I have a few sets of poems going, that don’t yet belong together, or in any book I’ve completed. They may remain as they are, or three decades from now I’ll figure out the larger picture!
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy going to readings, listen to words swirling around in the atmosphere, and I really believe that being part of readings (as poet or as audience) is part of the larger conversation. I’m the sort of writer who gets wildly excited about doing readings until about 2 days before the reading, when I suddenly realize that I hate giving readings and what was I thinking? By then, of course, it’s too late to back out, though I approach the mic with dread. As soon as I step back into the audience, I decide I love readings again, and can’t wait for the next one!
5 - 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?
Short answer: yes, I think all writers have theoretical concerns that inform and characterize their writing, whether consciously or not. On the other hand, I’m not interested in poetry that sounds like a critical essay, broken into lines. For me, the language on the page matters. Literally. I’m not sure I’m trying to answer questions as to make sure certain questions get asked, to make sure the language available to readers is complicated and exhilarating and confounding and caustic and opaque and a delight.
6 - 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 think the role of the artist is to recognize, critique, celebrate, and insist on how utterly knotty and muddled and difficult the world is. Trying to write into that commotion is sometimes devastating (and thus often ignored), but that doesn’t change the necessity.
7 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with an editor is invigorating and stimulating and absolutely motivating. I never get it when writers eschew a good editor; to what end?
8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best I’ve heard? Write every day, no matter what. The best I’ve actually followed… who knows? Kroetsch used to go around paraphrasing Gertrude Stein: “If you can do a thing, why bother?” I do try to always write well beyond my own capabilities, which makes the page exceedingly interesting…
9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Actually, it’s very difficult. Especially when I hear about a poet who’s decided to write the Canadian novel. Or novelists who throw ditty poetry into their fiction to supposedly strengthen a character. So, to go ahead and move back and forth is a bit of hubris on my part – just writing one genre is too hard! I constantly give up one form or the other. But the reason I keep trying to write both is because it keeps me a bit off kilter; I’m hoping that by switching – just as I begin to feel comfortable in one mode – I won’t rely on any past achievements or perceived success.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one?
11 - How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Truthfully? Rushing off to a meeting, or to class, or to some other administrative chore. I wish I could claim that writing is the pivotal undertaking of my day, but the job unequivocally comes first. Like most people, I fit writing into the rest of the day/week/month.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Any writing that digs at me. I’ll return to books that have turned my crank in the past, or I’ll open a new book I’ve bought but haven’t opened yet. The sheer joy of reading so much poetry that is brilliant and is nothing like what I’d do – it’s splendid.
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?
Yeah, Fred Wah always says that the best response to a poem is another poem (rather than, I think, an essay about that poem). But language comes at us from every direction, from every art form. I’m not necessarily “inspired” by music or paintings, but – again – the brilliance of artists who shake up my thinking in ways I didn’t know before I experienced their art is breath-taking. So: I take a breath. I take two. Then I see if I can write like charcoal. Or Schrödinger’s Cat. Or bubble-gum wrappers.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside your work?
This is too long a list to even attempt – even if I just narrowed the question to poets, we would be embroiled in a 44-page list! So, I’ll mention a few movements and poetic influences: the Modernist poets, Boundary 2, the LANG poets, Québec feminists, TISH, Canadian prairie poets, Tessera, Kootenay School of Writing, Jacket, the Influency Salon, and – of course – absolutely everything that BookThug’s up to!
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
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?
One of those people who checks on continuity in a film. Someone who pays attention to tiny, and (to most people) unimportant details!
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I am a couch potato at heart – for reading, anyway. Writing is a way to weigh in. And, truthfully, although I write as opposed to participating in another art form, I’m not sure I’d say I write as opposed to doing other things. I am a teacher; I’ve been a child-care worker, a publisher, an editor, an activist, etc. etc. I don’t think anyone can actually “just” be a writer. Though I may compose poems hidden away by myself, writing is ultimately a social act in that writers need to be immersed in the world.
18 - What are you currently working on?
At least 16 projects – I have an inadequate attention span!
[Nicole Markotić reads in Toronto on May 22 at Supermarket as part of the BookThug Spring 2012 launch]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;