Friday, October 30, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Chris Hutchinson

Chris Hutchinson was born in Montreal and has lived in Victoria, Edmonton, Nelson, Vancouver, and Phoenix, Arizona. He now resides in Kelowna, where he teaches English at Okanagan College. The author of two books - Other People's Lives (Brick Books, 2009) and Unfamiliar Weather (Muses' Company , 2005) - his poems have been translated into Chinese and have appeared in numerous Canadian and U.S. publications. Over the years he has led poetry workshops in college, high school, and elementary school classrooms.

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

My first book did not change my life. Perhaps a few people took me more seriously because my poetry now came as a product with a barcode. I did get the chance to go on a brief tour, reading in a few cities across the country, which was a blast. But then, after about two weeks of gallivanting around and playing poet, I was back to my job as a short order cook.

With my second book I was thinking more architecturally, more in terms of prosody; and I was reconsidering some of my assumptions vis-à-vis the lyric mode. I wanted to try new things, play around a bit, take some risks. I had decided that much of contemporary Canadian poetry was boring, including many of my own published poems, and that, if nothing else, I didn’t want to be boring.

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

I did not come to poetry first. Back in the day, I tried to write long, sprawling, self-mythologizing novels. It was the early nineties, I was living in Victoria, but I imagined I was living in Paris in the twenties. And in a way, I was. Poetry came later, and then the real trouble began.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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?

My first drafts are pig slop. It usually takes me at least twenty drafts just to redeem myself. There are exceptions of course. Occasionally there are gift poems, the ones that miraculously appear perfectly healthy and fully formed.

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?

A poem for me almost always starts with a line that floats in from who-knows-where and touches down on the page. If the line is good, if it’s a line I really like, I’ll try to write it a companion line, something to keep it company; and it goes on like that. Really, it’s a process of continual self-delusion. But the longer I fool myself, the more lines I write, and thus the more raw material I will have to toy with later.

I’ve been working on longer, book-section-length pieces lately, and this has required a bit more preparation and forethought than the writing of individual, discrete poems. But I’m not sure if the day will ever come when I deliberately sit down to write an entire book about ‘X’. I don’t like knowing what I’m doing or where I’m going. I can’t even stay in the same job or city for more than three years it seems. The fun of writing poetry for me is the not knowing of it all, the unpredictability of the process and the outcome, and the strange places poetry takes me. It’s a hard thing to try to explain on a Canada Council grant application form.

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

I enjoy the act of reading poetry aloud in front of people. I don’t mind a little attention now and then, a little company. Though there is something weird about moving from the solitude of writing to the public stage of performance.

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?

Yes, all my work starts with the assertion that language is nothing more than a delivery system for political ideology.

I jest, but only partly. I am fascinated by theory, in a purely amateur sense—literary, political, social, etc. My readings in other disciplines have no doubt influenced my attitudes and beliefs about a great many things, including language and poetry.

I was recently talking with this young guy who is an accomplished academic and a talented poet, who told me, after much premising, that he wrote poetry in order to “redistribute wealth”. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to ask him if he was serious or joking, or if I heard him right.

For me, the current questions are: “What is poetry?” and “What can poetry accomplish?” and “Who the hell am I writing for anyway?”

In this they resemble the old questions.

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?

In my Ideal Republic, the poet would play the following roles:

1. IIconoclast

2. Jester

3. Pirate

4. Recipient of large amounts of praise, money and affection

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

I think it’s essential to have another set of eyes look over my work near the end of a project. I have certain idiosyncratic blind spots.

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

Expect nothing. Write poems for the sake of writing poems. Eat well, and get some exercise.

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 move around that much, genre-wise. Occasionally, I’ll write a light-hearted book review or a close reading of a poem I like. I used to write fiction, but over time my prose lines morphed into poetry. I have friends who have encouraged me to write more critical prose, to enter that arena. But for now, I’d rather write poetry.

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 get up at six in the morning and ride my bike to campus where I plan a variety of lessons for the day. I teach four different English courses, and I have over one hundred students. For the first time in fifteen years, I don’t have a writing routine. I have a teaching routine. So I write in between things now, sneak a few lines onto the page when I can. It continues to haunt me, this writing addiction; it finds a way.

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

My writing itself hardly ever ‘stalls’. But my relationship with my writing certainly gets derailed from time to time: life gets complicated and messy. But a writer’s task is to write through it all, regardless. I find inspiration in the act of writing.

13 - What do you really want?

I want to move on to the next question.

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?

Dear David McFadden,

Books come from books, and poetry begets poetry, and money makes money—but what makes money make money? If poetry did not exist, would it be necessary, or even possible, to invent it?

Other forms that influence my work? I’m fascinated by the linguistic expressiveness I hear in certain jazz phrasings. And it makes me happy when conceptual artists make raids on fallacious cultural assumptions, values or beliefs. I love fashion and design, film, photography, architecture.... In terms of my own work, I don’t know how much I’m directly influenced by other forms, but I’m thrilled and delighted by any artist who can make my world bigger, stranger.

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

My life outside of my work?

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

Receive a Canada Council grant.

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’ve always envied painters, their tangible creations, their well-lit studios, the physicality of the labour itself. Yes, for us lit-theory types, there is something called the “materiality of the signifier”; but whoever first dreamed this up probably had painter-envy.

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

I’m terrible at everything else. God knows how many other things I’ve tried to do and failed at miserably.

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

Last great book: Rae Armantrout’s Versed. Last great film: Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Other than marking college English papers, I’m plugging away at a new collection of poems that will undoubtedly puzzle editors, Canada Council Jury Members, and anyone who enjoyed my first two books. I’m hell-bent on obscurity these days. I should have been a pirate.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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