Interview with Stan Rogal
This interview was conducted over email from June 2002 to May 2003.
rob mclennan: How long have you been writing?
Stan Rogal: I’ve been writing ‘seriously’ (meaning that I was doing some writing in my early twenties and published a prose piece or two, took a couple of creative writing courses), I guess, since I went to SFU and began a few classes, say 29 or 30 — so depending on your outlook — 22 or 32 years. Self-published first book of poems Penumbras in 1981 and first book by a known publisher in 1992.
rm: Despite self-publishing that book, Penumbras, so early, you seem to have come to publishing later than some, with Sweet Betsy from Pike not appearing till you were 42 years old. Considering the rate at which books have appeared since, what was happening to you, and your writing, during those intervening years?
SR: OK, so I graduated from SFU in 1982 and began working at a hotel doing maintenance, first part time then full time so I was basically just trying to pay the bills. Of course I continued writing a bit, sending stuff out to small mags and getting poems and short prose pieces published here and there, while no one appeared interested in printing an entire book. I was also involved in theatre (and continue to be), acting in various pieces, usually in alternative spaces and Festivals, plus writing plays (again, the shorter works sometimes being staged while longer pieces were ignored). It was in these years that I wrote In search of the Emerald City poems.
I moved to Toronto in 1988, completed The Imaginary Museum ms, then went to York U for a year to obtain my Masters. During this time I was so busy with assignments that I wrote very little. Graduating, I went to work with Pollution Probe as a door-to-door canvasser. It was this experience that led me to writing Sweet Betsy from Pike. I was also working on more theatre pieces, putting together some radio plays as well as stuff for Festivals. Eventually I got together with a couple of folks that would soon become Bald Ego theatre where we did some of my work plus more established writings. My first major main stage play was performed at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1996 with BE (Threepenny EPIC Cabaret).
During these years I also began doing readings at the various venues in the city and got to know a large group of writers, most of whom have since gone in different directions, some ‘making’ it as writers of note. I took over as host of the Idler Pub reading series in 1990 and did it until 2000.
Generally, then, between poetry, prose, theatre and ‘the scene’ I remained pretty active, creatively. This year I have a play in each of the Toronto summer Festivals (I wrote and am directing), a novel-in-short-stories coming out in the Fall with Insomniac, part of a new anthol with you, two books of poetry in the spring.
Meanwhile, very little money coming in as a writer and working as a Standardized Patient to pay the bills. The money thing (or the fact that I haven’t been able to garner an audience despite normally getting good reviews) often weighs me down and I wonder ‘why bother?’, but for some strange reason, I continue, whether out of sheer stubborness or maybe from the fact that I’ve painted myself into a corner and can’t get out or more likely having accepted my situation and writing for myself anyway, so... what the hell? Better than sitting in front of the tube, waiting for the inevitable ambulance. Plus, the people around me make it worthwhile. All of this as an aside to your original question.
rm: With working in these various genres that don’t necessarily overlap - poetry, fiction and theatre - do these forms interact for you, or are they completely separate? Are there things that you do, or can do in one genre, because of what is happening in another?
SR: This is a question frequently asked of me and I’m never sure how to answer. Often I think that the three genres are quite distinct in that my poetry tends more toward cut-and-paste, collage, allusional, break with narrative while fiction is more storytelling with plot and subplot and theatre makes more use of other conventions such as light, sound, props, visual cues as opposed to ‘the word’ plus knowing that directors and actors will have a hand in molding interpretation.
That said, I believe that theatre influences the tone if not the voice of my writing in that I tend to offer a variety, from soft, gentle, meditative to harsh opinionated, love to sex etc, in order to colour the work, in order not to lull the reader to sleep over the long haul, plus make it interesting to myself. Also the use of verb to keep the action moving, the voice active and tending way from the much-used adjective. I rarely use simile in my poetry but will use it freely in fiction, mainly as a character trait. Toss in the use of minimal and maximal in the use of language to put across an idea or feeling or mood, that is, a very slim poem next to a very fat poem, a rather talky (as talky as I get, at any rate, which is not much according to some people) play beside a stripped down broken language play.
Again, in terms of subject matter, there is the most cross-over with things like relationships, identity, memory, environmental issues, personal issues, mind/body problem, some politics (in other words, mainly metaphysics but enough — I hope — tangible material for an audience to sink their mental teeth into). Further, my work is definitely autobiographically influenced, though I beg, borrow and steal from any and every available source.
Somehow through it all I do feel that I know when something is a poem, something is a story and something is a play as I’ve rarely transcribed one form to another. Meaning that there must be enough ‘real’ difference to know. My novel The Long Drive Home was written with filmic qualities in mind, but not ‘as a film’ which is why I’d like someone else to do the screenplay if there was interest.
Again, through it all, even with the differences between genres trying (and I think succeeding judging by the fact that my work is often tossed aside as ‘obviously Rogal’ so forget it) managing to arrive at work that carries my stamp, my signature and no mistaking, which I have strived for and worked at and for better or worse...
rm: The more I read your work, one of the things I admire is the differences between books, the subtle leaps in style from collection to collection. Is this deliberate or do you simply shift naturally when a project is completed?
SR: Yeah, I do think things out a fair amount and try to make each book different in some way. In fact, within the books themselves I consciously try to offer variations, whether in style or voice, though clinging somewhat to a particular theme. Part of this is because I read too many books that sound the same all the way through or read like the same poem or story and this tends to bore me. I tend to play with voices in the poems as well as with line length. My short stories tend to genre-jump, moving from naturalism to noir to magic realism and so on. I like ‘playing’ and it keeps me — the writer — interested. I trust that others find it interesting, though the mainstream generally likes (prefers, demands) a quick easy label. My first novel was filmic/noir, my second a pseudo writer’s journal with a thin narrative (which no reviewer seemed to pick up on), my third (unpublished) is an epistolary novel in female voice, I have a collection of linked short stories coming out in the Fall, the novel I’m working on now is much more loose and stream-of-consciousness but around a specific plot line. New short stories are much more absurd/magic realism and poems around the themes of freaks and monsters.
A lot of this has to do with what I’m reading or watching at a particular time or simply an accumulation. Plays this year run from performance of a noir piece about a serial killer to a comedy with songs about Bertolt Brecht to a Beckett-like piece and will end in August with a frenetic dark comedy in a Futurist vein. The whole shift to keep me amused more than anything else, but also wanting to try certain established things and re-work them into something else. I guess, the whole collage metaphor (more obvious in the poems and plays) is a big thing for me.
Also thinking about a Country-Western play. We’ll see if I can keep it up amid the lack of notoriety and funds. Great reviews for recent play, which is nice and tends to keep me pumped.
rm: Poet and critic Judith Fitzgerald has praised your work a number of times in print, and I know you’re a big fan of her writing. What other writers excite you, and (perhaps) inform what you do?
SR: Yeah, please make sure you say that I’m a big fan of Judith’s work, this more for her benefit than anyone else. In other words, I don’t hate her.
For the question, are you talking dead or living or both writers? There are many writers that I read and enjoy, several who inform my work and a select few who have influenced or do influence me radically.
In terms of fiction, my initial reading was SF and loved Ray Bradbury and Jose Farmer. The first novel I recall hitting me over the head was Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. Edgar Allen Poe, of course. Anais Nin and Marguerite Duras. Moby Dick for its metaphysical slant, and Don Quixote for its form and fun. Next biggest hit was Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and short stories. Toss in some post-modernists (Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Saurraulte) plus Beats (Jack Kerouac) and Raymond Carver, Robert Coover, Italo Calvino, Richard Brautigan, John Hawkes, Don de Lillo, Donald Barthelme... The list goes on.
For plays it was the Dadaists, the Futurists, the Absurdists but specifically Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Eugene Ionesco, Bertolt Brecht, Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, David Mamet, Tennessee Williams, film noir...
Poetry biggies were Jack Spicer, John Berryman, Arthur Rimbaud, Richard Brautigan, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Anne Sexton, Marjorie Welish, Judith Fitzgerald...
These are folks who actually influenced my work in grand ways and who I can say I enjoy their total work. Others I pick out things here and there. I loved Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook and Graeme Gibson’s Five Legs. Certainly I’ve learned that if a book bores me, put it down early and find another ‘cause there’s lots of choice. I try to read my friend’s books but the problem is — so many of them are now being published that it’s impossible to keep up.
I’ve missed lots, but this is an overview. If you want to know who I think is the new up and coming, I have no idea as my taste seems to differ from the population large and small.
rm: You ran the Idler Pub reading series for ten years, three readers every Sunday night. Between hearing the best and worst literature had to offer, on a regular basis, how did that affect your writing considerations?
SR: As to the question, are you asking how it affected which projects I worked on or my style or in terms of time to write? I suppose there were things that affected me in general but I can’t think of anything specific where I went, wow, after hearing that writer I should sit down and write such&such. In fact, even though I did run the series for ten years, once done it was like it never happened. I seem to have been born in the fortunate position of being able to move on without even thinking about it. I guess the other things is that I always have projects on the go and others in mind. I often decide which project to work on depending on what i think can be published more easily or what I think I can do quickest. Other times it’s strictly fortuitous. One woman liked a short story and asked me to write it as a play for her to perform in. I was working on a series of poems when J sent me a photo of a painting and asked for a poem. It ended as a ms with eight pix and 43 poems to be published next year. Someone wants to write a TV script treatment so I switch gears and go OK.
For me the series was always about the readers. I wanted a place for people to gather, have a drink and have a social time around a literary event. More often than not, when the quality was low, the audience was high whereas a writer that I enjoyed drew next to no grown and so me fretting about that as I was the host and took on some of the blame. As well, I’d be into the red wine and often hiding behind a wall going “Please don’t go past twenty minutes, I don’t care if you did bring fifty friends and relatives.”
rm: What is your relationship with visual art?
SR: While not an expert on Art, I have a definite appreciation and while I have had some training in Art history at University, most of my ideas around likes and dislikes seem to come from "inside" myself, whatever that means. As well, I'm pretty inclusive in terms of Art, meaning that I appreciate film, music, literature along with the plastic Arts.
One of my books of poetry is titled The Imaginary Museum and I created poems around various pieces of Art. Sweet Betsy From Pike used imagery heavily influenced by Bosch paintings. Film Noir enters in The Long Drive Home as well as in many short stories and (obviously) for stories in two noir anthologies.
Further to this, most of my book covers use original art created by artist friends. My short story collections contain original paintings, sketches and collages. My next book of poems, sub rosa will contain 8 original full-colour paintings by Jacquie Jacobs and 43 poems based on these prints. My current collection of poems in progress, "Fabulous Freaks" will also contain several of my own original collages.
Of course, I also incorporate allusions to Art pieces and music in my work as a way of layering moods or meanings and which allows the reader to bring more of their own experience to the pieces. It's also a way of promoting people and work to a larger audience (if, indeed, the literary community can be considered a larger audience...)
The other thing is, it's just fun to mix and match and hopefully meet folks from other disciplines.
ps: As with other things in the world at large, Art inspires and influences the way I think and behave in creative ways. Often, if I'm feeling kind of lazy and/or bereft of ideas, I can get on a different wavelength by turning on the radio or going to a film or opening an Art book or going to a gallery or to a play (or going to the bar for a drink, but that would be a different question...)
rm: What was the process of working with Jacquie? The press information for sub rosa suggested that the poems were "[s]tructured around the vibrantly sensuous paintings of Jacquie Jacobs." Were they included to illustrate, or were pieces written around them, or a combination of both?
SR: J sent me a photo of a painting from Switzerland and asked me to write a poem to go along with it for use on a postcard. I loved the painting and decided to write two poems for her to choose from. Then she sent another picture and I did the same. Then a third and a fourth and I said -- hey! Why don't we put together a book of pix and poems. In the end, 8 paintings and 43 poems. The poems are basically transformations from the painting and the initial poem in which I tried to set up a thematic and a small vocab of images specific to the painting, then juggling the images around other ideas and so on... So, "Paradise", "Paradise Transformation 1", "Paradise Transformation 2"... you get the picture (haha...).
The book will have the 8 pictures in full colour plus a ninth painting on the cover. The poems will be in black and white (though the language will be colourful).
rm: At a recent reading at the TREE Reading Series in Ottawa, you mentioned the amount of anagram, bad puns and other intricate play in (sub rosa) . Your work is known for never being what it appears. I’ve always been a big fan of “play,” and know you are too, with your interest in the work of Judith Fitzgerald and bpNichol. But was it the idea of collaboration, responding to Jacquie’s paintings, that brought about this heightened sense of it?
SR: Um, it’s possible, simply because I wanted to balance the cerebral/mythical quality of the paintings/poems with the playfulness of taking classical forms and updating/manipulating/transforming them.
On a baser level, I think that the more I write and the more jaded I become with the literary scene and the indifference toward “literature” and “art” from the general public, the government and the press, the more I use humour in order to maintain my sanity, have some fun and take cheap shots at these various cross sections of what we laughingly call a “culture.” Preaching to the converted, I know, but what else can one do when one is too stubborn, too stupid or too possessed to pack up the pen and call it a day?
I’m in the middle of renovation hell at Jacquie’s, but hope to rise again soon like the fucking Phoenix and start enjoying the summer as well as work on a couple of writing projects – GO FIGURE! Want to finish a short story collection. Want to do a re-write on a play. Two novels making the rounds. Applying for OAC grant. What am I thinking?
rm: Given your comment about recent discouragement, what would then have made you go back into the poems from the chapbook In Search of the Emerald City (1997, above/ground press)?
SR: #1: the discouragement isn’t recent, it’s been a long time growing.
#2: just because I’m discouraged about the reception to my work, doesn’t mean I’m down on the work itself. In fact, I enjoy putting pencil to paper and I’m generally pleased with the result. Moving to the plays, it’s always fun getting a few folks together for a reading or even putting something up.
#3: I’ve always been fond of the Emerald City poems and the comparison of the ART journey with the Hollywood journey as well as looking behind the scenes for the tragic Judy Garland/artist as opposed to the idyllic Dorothy/fantasy character. Also wanted to beef up certain things (more Toto) and update. Plus, I’m able to include a few collages inside as well as on the cover. The artist picture is also fun, me dressed up like Van Gogh with candles burning in my hat at night, glass of wine in one hand, pencil in the other.
#4: I’ve also completed the worst part of the reno at J’s so I’m in a brighter mood all round today and look forward to having another book launch in the Fall.
#5: and people like me; they really, really like me (mantra...)
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