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Monday, June 01, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Jason Dewinetz

Jason Dewinetz is a writer, publisher, graphic designer & typographer originally from the Okanagan Valley. The author of The Gift of a Good Knife (Outlaw Editions), In Theory (above/ground press), and moving to the clear (NeWest Press), Jason's poetry and fiction have appeared in literary anthologies & journals across Canada including Grain, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, The Pottersfield Portfolio and Descant.

With Michael O'Driscoll he is also the co-author of A Bibliography of the Black Sparrow Press Archive, a detailed catalogue of the University of Alberta's collection of the Black Sparrow Press' first 94 publications.

A past instructor at the University of Victoria (Publication Design), and currently at Okanagan College (English/Fine Arts & Publication Design), Jason is also the founding editor, publisher & designer of Greenboathouse Press, a small press publishing limited editions by writers from across Canada. Jason's design for Greenboathouse has recently brought in his fourth consecutive Alcuin Award for Excellence in Book Design in Canada, and in 2008 Jason served as one of three judges for this national competition. This summer, he will be presenting a talk on Contemporary Fine Press Publishing in Western Canada at the National Arts Club in New York City.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Change my life? Hmm. I don't think it did. Considering that my first chapbook was self-published, I'll talk instead about the second one, that Outlaw Editions did (The Gift of a Good Knife). I suppose there was a certain kind of validation in the fact that someone wanted to put up their hard earned cash to publish my stuff, and I was, of course, pleased when it came out (we had a decent book launch in Victoria, etc.), but the end always feels a bit flat compared to the means. It's the work that goes into the thing that is the interesting part, the part that can, in various ways, change one's life. But I suppose from a practical position, that chapbook led to a range of other opportunities, doors opening that might not have opened otherwise, etc. But that can be said of any experience, really.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

That's an interesting question, as I was drawn, as a reader, to fiction first. I think the first poet I read with any real intent was Sylvia Plath, not that I had the slightest idea what she was talking about. But I'm a drama queen at heart, as much as I hate that this is so, and there was something about poetry that spoke to something important, whereas fiction has always felt to me, and more so as I get older, a bit frivilous. At some point fiction just seemed a less than impressive shadow of the real thing, which is why I now read mainly poetry and non-fiction. I'm not suggesting that fiction doesn't have the ability to make an impact, it's just that I don't think I'm as succeptible to it as I was when I was 17 or 21. Life is far more interesting, and poetry seems to me a more astute and thorough, and far more precise and critical, exploration of experience.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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's the starting that takes all the time. I'll sit on an idea or image for months, and then when it comes, it comes quite quickly. Unfortunately it usually comes when I'm driving, or walking, or sitting on a bus. Interesting that these are all activities of movement... When I do pick up the pencil, while attempting to steer at the same time, it tends to come in fertive bursts, but incompletely. Half a poem, a few lines, or a scattering of lines only loosely connected. Then it tends to sit like that, on a scrap of paper, for a long time. Finally, when there's enough scraps, there tends to come a moment where a structure becomes apparent. This is what's happened recently with a gathering of small pieces that suddenly, without consciously thinking about it, came together, and the gathering of these specific pieces seemed obvious, as though I'd been writing them to go together all along, although I hadn't done this consciously. And then there's cutting, and clipping, and expanding, and replacing. And then sending the things to a few friends for feedback. And then another few months of stasis. And then, finally, a last tuning. The current thing I'm finishing up has been 5 years in the making, and it's only 16 pages long. But I've been busy with other things for the past few years, so this little series feels more like a lucky accident than hard work.

4 - 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?

I think my last response speaks to this question, but as to where the poem begins, I'd say it's once again a semi-conscious connection. One experience that is drawn out in another, an image that I can't shake, or, and this is quite common for me, a jolt from another writer will focus my eye and I'll see a few things I didn't see moments earlier. I went to a couple of talks/readings last year that had this effect on me quite strongly, although it took a few days for the moment to arise after the fact. Pain helps. Pain is good for productivity.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

As above, other people's readings are a sporadic part of the process, but, as a reader, readings are an after-the-fact thing: I don't read things that are in-progress, unless I'm specifically asked to do so, in order to talk about process. I don't particularly enjoy doing readings, mainly because I find them so hit-and-miss most of the time, which is odd considering I've produced a number of reading series over the years.

6 - 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?

Theory is a fairly significant part of my pre-writing process, which is to say the questions I ask, hopefully indirectly, are theoretical questions. They start from simple human curiosity: why are we so cruel to each other? why is violence so appealing? why do people seek pain? I'm not big on the soft & pretty stuff, as I find too much of that in day to day life. What intrigues me is the stuff folks don't usually want to talk about. Contemporary poetry goes about halfway: it digs beneath the superficial shit of pleasantry and moves around in the shallow end of real experience. But it stops at the knees. I mean, I just don't care about yet another failed relationship, or another journey of self discovery. I'm more drawn to that small thought finding its way out when someone is broken, helpless, useless with the kind of pain that draws out our real humanity. That calm that only comes with surrender. What this has to do with theory, to me, is an understanding that our actions and experiences, and our feelings about those actions and experiences, are really quite pathetic, because, to a large extent, they're not our feelings at all. They're hard-wired reactions to the world around us, largely dictated by instinctive and learned responses, by foundational events and ideology. I like Egon Schielle's art because... I find neediness unattractive because... The path back to finish these sentences is usually quite obvious, if one is really willing to have a look around, it's just that the conclusions are usually quite ego deflating. And, ultimately, whatever conclusion I come to is momentary, always already incomplete and changing, based on lies and misunderstandings of previous lies and misunderstandings. It's the play of creating meaning that keeps us busy, and what we're attempting to do with poetry is just that kind of play.

7 – 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?

Role? I think that writing plays a role in our larger culture, but writers are just celebrities if they're in the public eye at all, and who cares what a celebrity has to say? This interview, for instance... Why would anyone read it? Who the hell am I? Do I have any significant insights to share? Any profound comments or conclusions? Hell no. I'm simply indulging myself in getting to spout off a bit. There is, of course, a certain kind of writer who is able to inspire in others a sense of belonging, and that's the experience I had when I was younger, reading Doestoyevsky or Kerouac or Ondaatje or Celine, but it surprises me that our culture holds up authors the way it does. Writers tend to be self-centred, insecure drama queens who can't stop talking, and, really, I mean, enough already, just hand me the book.

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

Essential. Editors do the real work. They're the ones who first have to weed out the crap, and then they have to figure out a way to present their findings to us in a way that won't cripple our fragile sense of brilliance. I'm fairly quick to accept editorial cuts and edits, up to a point, and at that point I just don't hear them anymore. And I realize that's because I'm too attached to the line or word or poem, but so be it. Everything up to that point (and that point is quite far along the continuum) is fair game, and this editorial exchange is also where the interesting stuff happens, where the writing becomes its own thing, rather than my thing.

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

All advice is suspect. All advice is useful. All advice is suspect. All advice is useful.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres poetry to critical prose? What do you see as the appeal?

I don't think I write critical prose. You mean, like, book reviews? Ah, no.

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?

I have 3 day jobs (teaching, freelance book design, & publishing), so I don't have a writing routine. The idea seems odd to me, mainly because I'm not a fiction writer. "Routinely" writing poetry seems crazy. How can one sit down and write poetry to a regimine? Crazy. Seems to me doing so can only result in routine poetry: intellectual games rather than intense experiences.

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

I turn away. I'm always telling my students to do the same. When you get stuck, walk away. Leave it alone. Do something. Do a few things. Other things. Eat something. Sleep. Build a birdhouse. Given some time and mental variety, the stuck will un-stuck.

13 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?

Oh crap, I think it was the devil, but that was just a couple of horns stuck to my temples while in a dark room. And it was a long time ago.

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?

Definitely other books, but, as I mentioned above, pain. And I don't just mean the obvious kind. I mean intense humility, or intense loss, or intense joy, or intense calm. All of these are like ice on a burn. It hurst like hell, but it's also an intense relief. To really know something in the true sense. Not to think, not just to feel, but to know. That moment of awareness is the only source.

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

Important? Well, I appreciate solid contemporary writing. I'm an admirer of the work of Shane Rhodes, Karen Solie, Sina Queyras, Jake Kennedy, and I still have a guilty soft spot for Ondaatje's early stuff. But these days I'm primarily drawn to texts on typography. There's a beauty to the discipline and principles that I find quite meditative, and I find that, too, in working with type, with my hands, in the process of literally making books.

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

More of what I'm doing. I have 9 printing projects planned for the next 3 years, and I'm excited as hell.

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?

I'd like to really know how to work with wood. I know a little, but if I had another shot, I'd really get to know wood.

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

What made me write was a desire to exorcise pain. What leads me to write now is a fascination with that need for exorcism.

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

Jake Kennedy's Hazard, for the 10th time. I liked that Brad Pitt Jesse James movie. The film itself was rather dull, but goddam it was beautiful.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Just finishing up the series I mentioned above, which is called Clench, but I won't say much as it hasn't found a home yet.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

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