Tuesday, February 26, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Monty Reid [photo: Pearl Pirie]

Widely published as a poet and essayist, Monty Reid has produced a substantial volume of literary work. His volumes include The Life of Riley (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown Press, 1981), These Lawns (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990), The Alternate Guide (Red Deer College Press, 1995), Dog Sleeps (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1993) and Flat Side (Red Deer College Press, 1998), a collection of new and selected poems, Crawlspace (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 1993), and the chapbooks cuba A book (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005), Sweetheart of Mine (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006) and Lost in the Owl Woods (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2007). His work is also included in the anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets, published as part of the first season of books by Chaudiere Books, the same time his book Disappointment Island (Chaudiere Books, 2007) appeared, which went on to be shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award and win the Archibald Lampman-Duncan Campbell Scott Poetry Award. He has won the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry three times and is also a three-time Governor General's Award nominee. He spent nearly twenty years working at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, in the heart of the Alberta badlands, before moving to the Ottawa area in 1999 to work at the Canadian Museum of Nature. His newest book is The Luskville Reductions, out this spring with Brick Books.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It's difficult to say. It was a confidence-builder for sure, and it sortof legitimized being part of the literary community, and it felt pretty good - it's always nice to say you're a published poet. But I still had a family to raise and a job to attend to, so the basic trajectory of my life didn't change much. So one of the things it made me realize was that a book very rarely changes things in a significant way, and that's helpful in managing expectations, and also in making you understand (or at least making me understand) that the most important thing is one's own relationship to the work, and not in publication per se.

2 - How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived in the Ottawa are since 1999, altho the first 5 years of that was on the Quebec side of the river, which is a bit different. I've lived in downtown Ottawa since 2004.

Geography has always had an impact on my work - I'm conscious of it. Less so race and gender, altho I'm sure those are there as well.

3 - 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?

A poem can begin anywhere. An overheard conversation, a dream, a piece of rock, a rhythm, another poem. I used to get the beginnings of poems when I was driving. Sometimes I begin with an idea, but not often. The ideas are always percolating, but I usually need to be given a means to work them out.

I'm working on poetry right from the beginning. Any piece might end up as a book, or might end up as a haiku. I try not to pre-define it. But it's always the work, always the life-long poem, which I keep writing and re-writing.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

No. They're a way of engaging the literary community directly. I find that I'm often changing poems before a reading, so it's kind of an editorial process for me too.

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?

I do find that my work does tend to circle around theoretical concerns, altho rarely 'literary' concerns. Some issues for me include the status of the so-called natural world (which takes a very shallow form sometimes as the status of the 'animal'), the production and engagement of a community, and the related production of meaning. But I almost never begin a poem with the express notion of working through any of these things. What I am always conscious of is that I write against loneliness.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Editors have been useful for me over the years, even when difficult. If you want to put your poems out in the world, you should have some sense of the world's response, and an editor can be an attentive, if partial, way of testing that. So, not essential, but useful.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Not sure what you mean. The writing itself is always an exploration and a challenge - that hasn't changed over the years. Publication itself, with the new technologies available, seems to me to be easier these days than it has for a while.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I had a pear and blue cheese for dessert a couple of nights ago.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Strangely enough, the best piece of advice I ever received was from an ex-Jesuit who was a bureaucrat in the Alberta government many years ago. He said "err on the side of generosity".

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to song-writing)? What do you see as the appeal?

It's never been a huge gap to cross for me - they're all part of the same project. They demand different attentions, and there's more immediacy with the songs, along with the sense of collaboration - you're probably going to be playing them with other musicians. Working in different formats also has the benefit of keeping you at it, should one part or the other go dry for a spell. And I find that persistence valuable.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

A typical day begins for me around 5:30 am. I try to write every morning. I don't have the discipline I used to have tho, but I try to write every day.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Hmm. I have a variety of tactics. Sometimes I'll try translations. Sometimes I'll write songs. Sometimes I'll immerse myself in some big book, like Joseph Brodsky's Collected Poems in English. I don't believe in banging my head against any given wall, but move on to something else, and come back if necessary. The important thing is to keep writing, something.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Every book feels old to me. Because I'm usually engaged with something else by the time they actually come out. The book coming out this spring (The Luskville Reductions) is a good example. It was written at a fairly difficult point in my life, and it's hard for me now to really re-engage with it. It was hard during the editorial process too. Just because the situation, the location even, was over and removed.

14 - 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?

Books don't just come from books. There was a first one, and ur-book, somewhere. All sorts of things influence my work, and I'm very glad of it.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

The rest of my life is important of course, but there any many writers whose work has influenced me and many that I admire. William Carlos Williams, for instance, has been a touchstone for me ever since I started writing. I also read a lot of scientific material.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

move my piano

17 - 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?

or given my perfunctory cooking skills, a chef

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Well, it's never been opposed to something else for me. I want to write, and do the something else too.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Great, who knows. But I really enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory. I like pretty well any film with food in it.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Host, a book about parasites.
Cuban translations
and this interview

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