Friday, July 03, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Marcus McCann

Marcus McCann is the author of Soft Where (Chaudiere Books, 2009) and six chapbooks. In Ottawa, he is the organizer of the Naughty Thoughts Book Club and the Transgress Festival and a host of CKCU’s Literary Landscapes. He has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch award (2008) and won both the Rubicon chapbook award (2008) and the University of Ottawa 48-hour novella-writing contest (2005). He is the editor of Capital Xtra, the city’s gay and lesbian newspaper.

Photo courtesy of Charles Earl


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?

Soft Where — even though it 's edited, bound, published, launched, readily available — still feels like a work in progress. I'm still learning how to read from it, how to talk about it, how to promote it. There's work to be done on it every week, it feels like, whether it's readings or interviews or whathaveyou.

It feels good to have it out, but it's also a little strange. Now that I've got a perfectbound book with a publisher, etc, there are some people out there who think I've just materialized as a fully-formed poet. I mean, I did six chapbooks before Soft Where with micropresses (Rubicon, The Emergency Response Unit, above/ground, The Onion Union, UESA), I've done the magazine thing, workshops, readings, I run both the Naughty Thoughts Book Club and the Transgress festival here in Ottawa... but now I'm an author for real, just because my book has a spine.

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

Well, my family, I guess. In my grandparents' house in Pontiac County (Western Quebec), there's a framed piece of looseleaf with an eight-year-old's writing on it. It's a poem I wrote about my grandfather's efforts to build the house they were living in. Rhyming anapestic tetrameter, I think, so not especially "modern" or sophisticated, but already aware of the ear and of rhythm in writing.

I remember my mom asking me to write something for them and just sitting at the kitchen table and doing it. Both my parents have always been super supportive — they sent my poems to relatives and family friends when I was little. Still do, I guess. My grandparents were at the Writer's Festival launch of Soft Where and my dad too — and he bought copies to mail to relatives, so it goes on. Yeah, I guess I always had permission to write poems, I always felt like that was something that it was okay to do.

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?

You know, it feels slow at the time, but I can often pound out a solid first draft of a poem in about three hours. Well, longer poems not so much, but for something in the 12-40 line range, usually one good afternoon and that's it. And yeah, I guess the final versions look similar give or take a lopped-off stanza here and there. Mmm, and individual word choices can change quite a bit...

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?

For me, I need three things to happen simultaneously. Firstly, I need a hint of the music: some word or phrase that pops, a rhythm, usually two or three words that create some kind of consonance or assonance. Then, I need a poem-idea, something that I want to talk about, describe, inhabit. Often, those two come together.

The third thing I need is a poem-shape, some sense of how long the poem should be, what kind of a form to use, what the poem's arc is going to be, how it should begin, how it should end. This one can be tricky, but stealing forms from other poets is a good shortcut. Not just closed forms either: like "Creative Cyborg Anxiety Monologue" from Soft Where is a homage to Mark Doty and his "branching questions" style of poetry.

Having done six chapbooks and only one proper book, I have to say the chapbook is my natural writing length. Two of my chapbooks in particular — petty illness leaflet and The Tech/tonic Suite — were very deliberately to be a certain length, for the pieces to work together, etc. A shortened version of Tech/tonic ended up in Soft Where, with the poems appearing in the same order — they pretty much had to, given the shape of them.

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

Yeah, readings are important for me. My work is meant to be read with word-sounds top of mind. That means that it's very aural, if I've done it right, and so readings are in some ways the ur-site of the poem. Having said that, I'm not a spoken word poet, so I don't follow any of that genre's conventions. The problem is, the poems are built for the ear but not the tongue, so I do get tripped up reading my work sometimes.

I like the social aspect of readings — meeting people, hearing new work, talking about poetry, drinking the occassional beverage. So I like going to readings and I don't mind presenting, usually.

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?

For me, poetry is about grammar. In everyday English, we tend to use the same sentence constructions — subject, verb, object — over and over. So I spend a lot of time with things like interjections, parentheticals, phrasal subjects, and playing with using words as different parts of speech. In my own work, I'm looking to stretch rather than break grammar.... give English a chance to show off.

[Incidentally, these aren't twenty questions. Given that the above has three questions in it... it appears to total out to about 34...]

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?

[This one is also two questions]

There is a long history of writers-as-activists, and I find that really heartening. Folks like, say, Andrew Marvell, they were also political movers and shakers in their day. That thread runs both through people working within government and people working as outsiders like Mary Shelley or Lord Byron.

A little bit of gay history for you. In the early 1980s, when gay spaces in Canada were getting raided by police for consensual sexual activity on site, who spoke up for us? Well, firstly, gays spoke for themselves, and that's really important and beautiful. But for a lot of folks, it was still a very risque thing. Then Margaret Atwood and June Callwood came out against the bathhouse raids and for a lot of people, even gays, it was like, "Ah! I get it!"

I like it when I see the Writer's Union chew out politicians. Or to see John Barton tackling the changes to the Canadian Magazine Fund. Or the stink over C-10 in 2008, which included the' plan to censor made-in-Canada films.

Obviously, as a columnist at Capital Xtra, I do a lot of that, and not all of it is very popular: demanding charges be dropped against the odious cult leader Winston Blackmore or opposing raising Canada's age of consent...

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

You're my editor, so.... no comment? Conflict of interest?

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

Money won't make you happy. But the lack of it will sure as hell make you unhappy.

No? That one's my dad. How about Auden:

Find the mortal world enough.

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

I used to say that a poet writing journalism is like a figure skater playing hockey. Now I like to think of every day as a bit of a triathlon: do a 2-km poetry swim, 40-km as a journalist, and come home for a 10-km of criticism/prose/correspondence. That and a glass of wine.

Some people worry that journalism might "ruin" their poetic development, but I don't feel that way. If it worked for Walt Whitman, you know, it can't be that bad. I actually like that I have different writing outlets, because it helps me to think, "Okay, where does this idea belong? Is it journalism? Is it criticism? Is it a poem?" I don't have to jam it all in to poetry.

Having said all that, my job is a bit hectic, and that can be a drag on my creative process. But I don't see that as being anything particular to working as a writer and newspaper publisher — it has more to do with just being tired and frazzled. We all get that way sometimes, don't we?

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 don't have a writer's routine. I write, like I say, in blocks of about 3 or 4 hours. I'm quicker in the morning, so some days I'll write from 7-9am, other days from 6-9pm. Saturday is usually my best writing day, the clearest, but it depends if I'm stressed or preoccupied.

While deadlines help for academic writing and journalism, it's the kiss of death for my poems. I find that I usually need a day where the writing can unfold whenever I'm ready, rather than at a certain time. Even on a Saturday where I've got no plans until 5pm, that hangs over me all day and can impede the writing process.

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

Poems. Or poets. Often reading poetry for an hour is the best antidote to writer's block. So is talking to other writers — that can be very invigorating.

13 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

I had really, really great English teachers growing up. When I was in high school, I belonged to a group in Hamilton called the Student Literary Association. It was student directed and we met twice a month to do writing exercises and share our work. The teacher advisor, Meg Young, is a talented poet in her own right, and she taught me a lot. Looking back, she was so patient.

Mrs Young and the SLA taught me that it was okay to fail, that writing is a game, that it's fun. Some writers get really choked up in the process of composing, and it's a problem I've never had, partly because one of my early experiences of writing was — I guess it comes down to — exercises that are designed to bust writer's block. Put it down on paper, you know? Try it out. They're not all going to work, but it's important to keep experimenting.

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?

I have to hand it to McFadden. My primary inspiration for writing poems is poetry, its heightened language and associative leaps. But also: pop culture, newspapers, the Internet, science, spam, advertising, theatre, urban living, rhetoric, oratory, technical terminology, academic writing, conversation...

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

WH Auden; Ken Babstock; John Barton; Tim Bowling; Stephen Cain; Kevin Connolly; Hart Crane; Mark Doty; Seamus Heaney; Gerald Manly Hopkins; Allen Ginsberg; Thom Gunn; Dennis Lee; Daphne Marlatt; Don McKay; James Merrill; Edna St Vincent Millay; Paul Muldoon; Les Murray; Dave O'Meara; Aaron Shurin; Karen Solie; Walt Whitman;

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

Well, I'm not big on whistful, pie-in-the-sky hopes, but I'm also not a fan of being directionless. I'd like to be a magazine editor some day, especially of something artsy and thought-provoking. That might come up and I think I'd really enjoy it.

I'd love to do a book of non-fiction at some point — the question has already been raised in some quarters — so that's something that's in the back of my head.

And I'd like to travel, see Spain, Greece, Italy and Mexico. That's not all that exotic.

Oh, and I'd like to get out of debt, get my finances in order, that sort of thing. And I'd like to do something nice for my dad.

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?

Had I not been a writer? Now that's tough, since most of my working life I've been exactly that. Even in university, I worked at the student newspaper (shoutout to the Fulcrum, what!?) and freelanced between classes. Well, one degree out from that: publishing or layout/design/production, maybe?

I'm also quite a menace with a needle and thread. I sew quilts, hollowe'en costumes, bags. I can darn socks and repair busted seams. Maybe I'd be a seamstress. Or, uh, a seamster.

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

I wonder about that. I've always wanted to be a writer. I used to say that I'd write the phone book if someone paid me to. One thing about writing is that it is very, very inexpensive to dabble in — the costs associated are quite low. No expensive or highly specialize equipment. Much cheaper than hockey. And even self-publishing and distributing are relatively affordable... anyway, I don't know the answer to your question, but it's a valuable one.

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

I read a lot, and left to my own devices I'd do nothing but. I really, really dig Karen Solie's new book, Pigeon and also Mark Doty's selected, Fire to Fire. This spring I picked up Carl Phillip's The Tether, and it's teaching me quite a lot about free verse and also about delay. That's all contemporary poetry.

Last weekend, I read video artist Mike Hoolboom's first novel, The Steve Machine. I don't care much for the title, but the book is genius. Just mind-blowing. Hmmm. I guess the truer test is what stays with you, what you can remember a year or two later, but that's hard to do in the context of this question (Jaime O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, John Fowler's The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sky Gilbert's An English Gentleman, Jane Rule's The Young in One Another's Arms).

The last films I really enjoyed? The Visitor. Wendy and Lucy. Happy Go Lucky.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm working on a chapbook called Windows which I hope to have ready in the new year. That's right, I'm moving from Soft Where to operating systems. Ha. I'm experimenting with different tones: darker stuff and also humour.

When I published Soft Where, I made a commitment that I wouldn't put out any chapbooks for the next eight months, so nothing would compete and people would have to buy the more expensive full-length book. That's been really freeing, in a way, because there's no pressure to release new work any time soon. I like that.


Soft Where is available from Chaudiere Books. For more info, go to or

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