Haas Bianchi questions, Chicago Postmodern Poetry, January 2007
note: this interview was originally done for Chicago Postmodern Poetry, but Bianchi hasn't posted it yet (he actually doesn’t seem to have posted anything new for months…); until he does, I put it here so it can at least be read, seen, etcetera; hopefully he can get back to posting interviews on his site again soon?
1) Where were you Born and what was your Formation?
rob: I was born at the Grace Hospital (since torn down) in Ottawa in March 1970 on a Sunday morning to a 20-year old woman I have not yet met; apparently she kept me in foster care until I was nearly ten months old, when I was adopted out of Cornwall, Ontario to a childless farming couple near Maxville, just a few miles north (check a map if you don’t know where these places are). I was raised on a sixth generation family dairy farm of 395 acres and raised very much in a Scottish Presbyterian environment (Glengarry County has the highest concentration of Scottish immigration in Canada, predominantly arriving from the highlands between 1770 and 1820, and home not only to many United Empire Loyalists, but a number of the North West Company, after they retired. The area is riddled with history). Through a series of events, I was raised less through direct teaching, but indirectly taught through example. I watched a lot of television, read my comic books, was pretty much left to many of my own devices apart from having to regularly do chores on the farm. There were books all over the house I eventually went through, but they were mostly local histories, Reader's Digest Books, National Geographic or my mother's Agatha Christie and Harlequin Romance (the only ones I didn’t go through), so really nothing literary. The only exception were the Ralph Connor novels circa 1900, scattered throughout the house. Connor was the pseudonym for a Presbyterian minister from my area, who wrote over twenty best selling novels; the ones best known and best remembered, of course, were the ones about my area, Glengarry County, so I at least knew that literary was possible; it planted the seed, I suppose. It was close geographically, but not temporally, which in hindsight seems a strange twist, doesn’t it?
Being that my father was (is) an only child, and my mother dropped out of grade ten to look after her ailing mother, it's been suggested that I might have been raised with considerations that are a bit further back than the considerations of my peers; my parent's considerations echoed those of their own parents, in so many ways, much closer than that of their peers.
I still have a strong relationship with that place out there, even though I've lived in the City of Ottawa almost as long as I lived on the farm. My mother (the one I grew up with) was actually born at the same hospital as I was, so my histories have always been divided, even further than the fact that I actually consider myself having two mothers, two fathers. I just haven’t met everyone yet.
2) What are your Poetic Influences?
rob: Most of my original influences, as far as poetry goes, were the Canadian poets of the 1960s, including George Bowering, Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen and John Newlove. Many of those, of course, weren’t influenced themselves simply by Canadian, but by many further afield, including Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Jack Spicer, Frank O'Hara, Richard Brautigan, etcetera. Over the years, my reading has simply expanded.
3) When did you realize you were a poet?
rob: It's a word I've actually preferred not to use when referring to myself. Am I a poet? I write. I am a working writer who happens to have focused on poetry for a number of years. What does this mean, to be a poet? It sounds too floaty and abstract. I think the word is too loaded, and I can do without the pressure of everything everyone thinks a poet is, which seems to have little to do with what is happening in the work. I've also had strange conversations with people over the years who presume that I think about poems all the time, simply because I happen to write; if it was a matter of what I did most during my day that defined me, it would be a toss-up between sleeping and watching television. It wouldn’t even be writing. I find the term too limiting. It does little to define.
But that doesn’t answer your question. I had been writing bad poems and bad short fiction for years during high school, and a little bit here and there after, when I moved up here to follow a girl. It was probably after our daughter Kate was born, about a year and a half after we arrived, that I realized that if I was going to do this writing thing at all, I had better do it properly, or not bother. I don’t remember now why I decided to focus on poetry first, and put fiction (and whatever else) aside for later. Kate was born in January, 1991, so I'll let you do whatever math you need to on that.
4) What type of class has proven most useful for your development as a poet/writer?
rob: I have no class; ask anyone. I took about three weeks of first year university at Carleton University in the late 1980s before I got distracted and wandered off (I now do a great deal of what some have called "academic work"). Everything else has been self-taught, self-motivated. Hell, I run poetry workshops now; I refuse to say "teach," because I don’t think you can actually teach writing. All you can do is provide options, listening and conversation. And reading, reading, reading.
Or maybe I heard the question wrong? The working class. Ha.
5) Favorite Team or Sport?
rob: I have to admit, through "local pride," I don’t mind hearing about hockey anymore, thanks to the return of the Ottawa Senators (we didn’t have a professional hockey team for about sixty years). Otherwise I don’t really see the point; why go to all that trouble when it just starts over a few months later? Although there is something grand about experiencing a baseball game on television with George Bowering in his (former) Kerrisdale living room (with poets Ken Norris and Tom Konyves in 2001; as Ken called it, three generations of Canadian postmodernism…), or with Dennis Cooley watching basketball in his Winnipeg basement…
rob: I'm not sure that I have one. I have a terrible and terribly bland diet, even despite the fact that I live in the one-block overlap between Ottawa's Chinatown and Little Italy (sometimes I check out the Vietnamese soup place across the street, which is pretty amazing). My mother used to make a fantastic stew in the overnight cooker, but that was twenty-five years ago. It was also pretty exciting in the mid-1980s when my father (who had the garden) "discovered" spaghetti squash. Cooked up nice with lots of butter, yum. But I've had enough fresh corn on the cob to do me another thirty years without ever having any again.
7) Vacation Spot?
rob: Hey, man, I grew up Scottish Presbyterian, there are no vacations. Damn these work habits I picked up from my father; damn that John Calvin who took the fun out of almost everything. I do like to get a few days or a week on the farm with my lovely daughter over Christmas and the August long weekend; we used to do March Break too, but she's older now, and (apparently) has other things going on in her life which is necessary for her, but a little disappointing for me. I tend not to take time off otherwise, unless I'm hanging out with her.
8) Swear Word?
rob: Old standards, for sure. "Fuck." Although "Jesus Jumpy Christ" can also do in a pinch.
9) Are you working on a book?
rob: I'm always working on a book. Books. Over the past couple of years my writing has really shifted; with the amount of poetry I've already written (various unpublished manuscripts that clog up my computer and writing desk), I've been working harder to focus on prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, as well as doing a heavy amount of book editing, for my new Chaudiere Books, as well as books I'm editing for Guernica Editions (Toronto) and NeWest Press (Edmonton), and an issue of the critical journal Open Letter (London ON). Because of that, as well as my ongoing interest in both the long poem and the book as my unit of composition, poems have been coming at me in bursts, as opposed to a more ongoing composition of individual pieces. Something, somewhere, just "clicks in," and I tend to spend two weeks or however long doing nothing but writing a single unit, from one long poem to a sequence or a series; part of the entertainment, now, is seeing just how far I can push the initial energy before it wears off. Once the burst is over, it is simply over. During my cross-Canada reading tour in November, I wrote fifty pages of notes for a piece on the train from Winnipeg to Toronto; the poem later boiled down to about forty pages, after edit after edit after edit, and has become my "sex at thirty-eight" (a poem about the future).
This is the end of January, 2007, and a snapshot of my work lately includes: putting the final touches on The Ottawa City Project (responding to both editorial suggestions by a few friends, and percolation time), a poetry collection that comes out in April; thinking and rethinking a short manuscript of poems called kate street, that collects disparate pieces from the past year or so (I think it needs another poem, maybe two, but what?) so I can attempt a few American poetry manuscript contests in February; touching up a short story after my fiction writing group went through it two weeks ago; finishing up a non-fiction book for Arsenal Pulp Press on the City of Ottawa so I can get (finally) back into my novel, Missing Persons. I so desperately want to get back into my fiction. There are projects I haven’t dipped into for a few months, such as my four-book "the other side of the mouth" series of response manuscripts; I have to rework the first volume, and the second two are still only half finished each, and the project is going on six years now. Another project, "a day book," consists of keeping a daily log for a full calendar year; now I have to go back into the few hundred pages worth of that and see how I can wrestle the text into a manageable and even publishable poetry collection (I've been sitting on this for a couple of years now). It makes me think of Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, who writes poetry manuscripts up to eight hundred pages and then boils them down to a hundred or so, which I find mind blowing on so many levels. Keep in mind, too, that this is during a period when I've got poetry books coming out this year in Canada (Chaudiere Books), Ireland (Salmon Poetry) and possibly in the United States (currently negotiating with Jessica Smith), and might have three more out next year, as well two books of non-fiction this year and another one next. I feel no lack or compelling need to push more poems for the sheer sake of it; I wait for them as they come.
Still, I've been wanting to experiment with a poetry of longer lines, and even shapes of prose, much in the ways of American poets Juliana Spahr and/or Sheila E. Murphy, but it just hasn’t happened yet. It's not only a matter of the right timing, but being able to have the amount of attention that such a project would demand. Books demand so much that they can't be written in halves, which is why some projects have simply taken years to even get back to, let alone finish.
10) Let's talk about Canada. What is going on that makes it so current now?
rob: Who says it wasn’t current before? Current to whom? Perhaps I should be asking you the question, what made some of you folk down there only start paying attention to some of us up here recently? Heh. There's a lot happening up here, and there always has been, especially since the 1960s "small press explosion" that helped invent a whole slew of presses, including Coach House, Talonbooks and House of Anansi Press.
Canada has this strange combination of cheeky and self-conscious, and all of that other stuff that comes with being beside a larger neighbour. Consider that Canada is probably the only country that Penguin has offices in that doesn’t have a poetry contingent; we get Alice Notley books, and whatever faber and faber is doing, but what crosses the border back at you? Small press doesn’t cross borders easily either, and I've noticed that Canada is years behind the US and other countries when it comes to online publishing; we still love the physical book, which is amazing, but hard to export, making your considerations of us much less than our considerations of you. I can print thousands of pages of Robert Creeley off the internet, but it's impossible to do the same for our equivalent writers, whether John Newlove or George Bowering or Steve McCaffery or Anne Carson. How does one get the word out? And unless someone has a BIG NOVEL out internationally, there aren’t a whole lot of American presses who are clamouring to publish Canadian poets living in Canada, you know?
The internet certainly has helped a lot, as well as stronger international presences by presses such as Coach House Books and Talonbooks moving the work further afield. I think we have always been interesting; what made you only notice now?
Certainly I could talk about the Canadian poets currently that excite me, whether Meredith Quartermain, Stephen Cain, Christian Bök (the only conceptual artist in Canada, I think, working with poetry), Jay MillAr and Rob Budde (who have been very much coming into their own lately), Jon Paul Fiorentino, Shane Rhodes, derek beaulieu, Rachel Zolf, Margaret Christakos, Sina Queyras, Sylvia Legris, Max Middle, Mark Cochrane, Stan Rogal, Nicole Markotic, Lisa Robertson or Gil McElroy, or even "older" Canadian poets who are still publishing extremely relevant works, such as Phil Hall, Dennis Cooley, Judith Fitzgerald, Robert Kroetsch, Monty Reid, Barry McKinnon, Maxine Gadd, Douglas Barbour (his last few books, I think, have included some of the most compelling works of his nearly forty years of publishing), George Bowering, Robin Blaser and Fred Wah, just to name a few. The list could be nearly endless. Hell, just look at poetry lists by presses such as Coach House and Talonbooks alone, and you would get a good sense (and a good start) of what you should be paying attention to.
11) How do you write a poem?
rob: A poem can start as easily as a word, as easily as a shape or a title. The beginnings of any poem is usually some sort of combination of the shapes I want to play with, and the words that end up taking that shape. Some days it's a matter of writing a few poems before the ones begin to happen that really take me where I think I should be going; sometimes it's a matter of a collaboration between where I want to go and where the poem wants to go. I'm a big believer in intuition and trusting oneself. I don’t need to understand what is happening as it is happening to be able to get further inside it. Sometimes you just have to run and keep on running until you stop.
12) Is poetry a synthetic or organic process for you?
rob: I think its pretty organic; I don’t think I set out to write a poem, necessarily, but a matter of something either percolating in my head long enough that I'm ready to start, or something that immediately triggers a response. I read and review a lot, so often it's a matter of something I've read that provokes. All writing is response, I've heard. Books come from books, the Toronto writer David W. McFadden used to say. Obviously that's only a small part of it, but it's a part of the package.
13) Where do you write? Is ambience important for you?
rob: For years I wrote in public, writing six hours a day six days a week in a Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Ottawa, from early April 1994 to the end of May 2000. Much of that came from the fact that I lived with roommates who thought my working at home meant I was waiting to talk to them; part of it too, growing up in a rural environment. I like being around people, and I like working with people around. I spent a few years, every evening or so, writing a novel at The Royal Oak Pub on Bank Street. Most folk knew I was there to work, so I wasn’t bothered that much, but it was as much how I socialized as much as got work done; few called or visited or knew where I lived, but they knew enough to come by where I was working and get me for a few minutes (I've received mail and phone calls at various establishments over the years). I managed to sell a lot of books that way, too. It helped keep me alive for years and years and years.
Since 2000, I've been living alone for the first time ever, and getting twice as much done, although there are a few places around the city I still go out to, with coffee or some other libation, for a few hours of public solitude. I'm solo self-employed in my little apartment (where I still never manage to make "employee of the month"), and deliberately have never lived with internet at home so I'm forced to leave my apartment every day and interact with people. It's not just a matter of physical health (walking the half hour to internet), but emotional health as well. I like having people around.
But I think I can write pretty much anywhere. Whenever I tour, I like having a project that begins when I leave the house, something that is self-contained to however long the tour is, to keep my mind active. During the British and Welsh tour I did with Stephen Brockwell last fall, it was a single short story I worked at every day, adding and adding; during the month-long Canadian tour in November, I tinkered a few weeks with a number of things until that long poem "clicked" on the train heading through the Canadian Shield. I've written poems on buses, airplanes and trains, while waiting for drinks or sitting in my favourite pub. In the most recent issue of The Walrus, I have a poem called "quick ghazal while waiting for kate in the tim hortons, rideau centre, february 11, 2006" because, literally, it was (she was about an hour late). I felt as though I had to give her a copy of the magazine simply because she'd prompted the piece; whether she actually wanted a copy or not, I have no idea. She's a sixteen year old girl; I think I'd be afraid of the answer…