D.S. Stymeist’s debut collection, The Bone Weir, has just been released by Frontenac House. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines, including The Antigonish Review, Prairie Fire, Dalhousie Review, and The Fiddlehead. His work was featured as the Parliamentary Poet Laureate’s Poem of the Month (February 2015) and was short-listed for Vallum’s poetry prize. He teaches poetics, crime fiction, and aboriginal literature at Carleton University. He grew up as a resident of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, is the editor and founder of the micro-press, Textualis, and is the current vice-president of VERSe Ottawa, which runs VerseFest, Ottawa’s annual poetry festival.
1 - How did you come to poetry, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Strangely enough, what began the process of writing poetry was putting my daughter to bed when she was a baby. Until she went into deeper sleep, I had to stay up with her, and she would fall asleep right on my chest. For long periods of time, I couldn’t move, or get up. This situation of having to be physically still led me to start playing with lines in my head. Considering the constraints of the situation, I couldn’t work with longer forms. Later in the evening, I’d try to jot these lines, sound sequences, or phrases down.
A few days later, I might play around with what I’d written until a poem fell out. So I guess I owe a lot to my daughter. She’s a peach.
About the same time, I heard Robert Pinsky read at the Ottawa Public Library as part of the Writer’s Festival. I’d always loved his work, but what really grabbed me was how after the reading he talked about how he grew up in small town New Jersey without being really aware that there were people who wrote poetry for a living. He liked to doodle with words, play around with them, rearrange lines and syntax just for the sheer pleasure of it. For me this idea of doodling with words was really important. I’d written poetry in my late teens, but as I became more aware of poetic traditions and the strictures of form I became more intimidated by it. Pinsky’s ideas about doodling with language helped to deflate some of that intimidation.
2 - Do you have any concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
Among my many, many other concerns, I have a strong interest in revisiting indigenous legend to reimagine our national landscape. These sacred stories and traditions have a lot to teach Canadians, all of us.
I grew up on a Cree reservation in Northern Manitoba in a household of mixed heritage. My stepfather was Cree, my mother is Northern European, and my younger siblings are metis. While there is some Choctaw blood in me (a few generations back), I’m mainly a white guy that grew up as a part of an indigenous community. Living in the Northern bush, and living off that land has given me some insight into the importance of having sacred stories that write the genesis of geologic forms and landscape. These stories are significant to my sense of self and place, and part of my role as a writer is to share this sense of significance.
In many other parts of the world, the land is tied directly to particular legends and myths. There are many indigenous stories that write the origins of local topographies, but these stories are either generally not very well known or have lost their resonant significance for most Canadians. Even among many first nations communities, there has been a tremendous loss of tribal knowledge due to religious conversion and the residential school system. There is a growing hunger and need for these stories.
There are many great Canadian writers like Gregory Scofield, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Thompson Highway, and Thomas King who write from perspective of re-purposing and adapting traditional legend for contemporary meaning. The mixing of cultures and traditions can be a potential strength of our country, something that defines us as a nation, but this can happen only if our culture as a whole starts acknowledging, valuing, and utilizing indigenous knowledges.
3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you?
It may sound utterly banal, but a poem begins with some subject, idea, or experience that I’m passionate about. For example, one of my abiding interests is the complex interconnections between animals and plants in specific environments. Animals don’t simply evolve—they co-evolve with other species.
When I found out that the pronghorn antelope, one of our iconic prairie animals, co-evolved with the American cheetah, I was taken with the idea that we live in an age of ecological ghosts.
Everywhere we look in modern habitats there are species that no longer exist but their biologic effect is still present in the bodies of other plants and animals.
After writing an elegiac ode to the American Cheetah, I subsequently wrote one about the Avocado, a central American fruit that you can find in any grocery, but one with an interesting biological history. As the avocado’s natural partners in its seed dispersal died out about 10,000 years ago, it has become largely dependent on human cultivation for continued survival.
While we are currently experiencing one of great extinction events in our planet’s history, from the very inception of humanity as a distinct species, we’ve been implicated in the extinctions of many species—Mastodons, Mammoths, Giant Sloths, etc, etc. This is the inheritance of the Anthropocene.
Some of my poems attempt to grapple with this legacy. Part of that elegiac process is bearing witness to the impact of our presence, our activities. Another part is to celebrate and pay homage to ecological ghosts.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes, if anyone has seen me read, I think it is readily apparent that it is something I enjoy. Public performances are essential to the task of my writing—the expectation that the written has to become oral shapes how the poems are composed.
I’m not a fan of opposing the term “page poet” to the “spoken word poet.” We are all poets, and the genetic origins of poetry ultimately lie in orality. That historical link to oral culture has a huge influence on how I go about constructing and reciting a poem
Homer was not writing for the page when he composed his versions of the Odyssey or the Iliad. The Nordic Scops who belted out early versions of Beowulf or the Sagas for their fellow tribe-members were not writing for the page. In a communal, aural environment, narrative meaning, rhythm, and sound become essential.
While I have great respect for concrete and visual poets, I write primarily for a public, oral audience. It’s always a privilege to get to share the work, shout out the words, while I still have voice.
5 - 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?
It depends on the subject and mode of a particular poem. Some poems, often the more lyrical or personal ones, often come quickly. Even a six page rant like the “401 Series” only took a couple of frenzied hours to jot down a first draft.
Other poems, like the ones that revisit forgotten moments of colonial history or excavate ice-age extinctions often take months of research before I come to actually sit down and write.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
At times it can be difficult, but it is definitely essential. I rely on editors noting when I’ve completely gone off the rails. I thank them for their work.
7 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Definitely what Robert Pinsky said about poetry as doodling with words.
Also, I say to myself: “there is no absolute need to write; write only when it feels necessary.”
8 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)?
It hasn’t been all that easy to move between different forms of writing.
In order to be successful, even in a limited way, at grad school and then as an academic, I found that I had to crush most of my creative impulses. To write critical work that would be publishable in peer-reviewed journals not only demanded all of my energy and time, it demanded that my thinking be rigorously analytic.
Over time, I believe that my mind became habituated to particular ways of thinking. When I began to write creatively, it was difficult to avoid some of the habits of the academic mind. The last few years have been about strengthening atrophied creative neural pathways. It has become easier and easier to write poetry and creative prose, but this transformation was certainly not without its pain.
9 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one?
I only find time to write when all my other responsibilities have been taken care of. I like to find blocks of undistracted time, but this can be very, very difficult. Moreover, I don’t write to a program or a schedule. If there isn’t something that is urging me to get it down on paper, I will not write.
10 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn, or return, to for inspiration?
I place no pressure on myself to write. To “stall” implies that there is an abstract desire to write something of import. If you have something to say, then say it. If not, then be silent.
If I have a spot of time to write, but find myself listless or under-motivated, then I will read, or revise older work (or have sex, or go for a hike, or bake some cookies—there is always something good to do with your time).
11 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I like the way that some people have a sense of home. I’m not sure I do.
12 - 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?
Pop music. The lyrical sister-art of poetry. Speech, inflection, rhythm.
Arcade Fire, Talking Heads, Serge Gainsbourg, Gorilaz, Massive Attack, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Guided by Voices, Daft Punk, Iggy Pop, Pixies, Sigur Ros, Charles Mingus, etc, etc, etc.
13 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is an overwhelming question. I’ve been thinking lately of Yusef Komunyakaa’s object poems. I’ve been drawn to the genre of the object poem in my own work (“The Levelois Point” for example). I like how meditation on a material object can provide a welcome relief from the confessional self as it is posed through the lyric form.
Komunyakaa’s object work on artifacts, such as “The Helmet” and “The Catapult,” is astounding—so precise, chiseled even. The paradox, of course, is how much these object poems reveal about humanity.
14 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a good novel.
15 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?
My health now precludes the attempt, but if I could, I might have been an archeologist, or paleontologist. Something to do with uncovering the buried, I think.
Remember that career test that we took in high school, the “Strong Interest Inventory”? I remember that my closest match was Female Army officer. Perhaps there’s still time…
16 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels. Some of the poems make me sick with envy.
We live in the golden age of the independent mini-series. I’m watching Fargo right now, to my great delight.
17 - What are you currently working on?
Poking at a few poems. Hopefully, in a year or two, a collection will drop out. We’ll see.