Saturday, October 31, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Joe Rosenblatt

Joe Rosenblatt was born in Toronto in l933. He started writing seriously in the early sixties, and in l966 his first book, The L.S.D. Leacock, was published by Coach House Press. Since then he has published more than a dozen books of poetry and fiction. His selected poems (1962-1975), Top Soil, won the Governor-General's Award for poetry. Another volume of selected poems, (l963-l985), Poetry Hotel, won The B.C. Book Prize, l986 for poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals in North America.

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

I think a poet’s first book is a commitment to a life’s course in poetry. It is a declaration of faith, so to speak. My first work was a pamphlet of poetry titled “The Voyage of the Mood,” published by a friend of mine, Peter Dorn who then had a private letterhead press. That was in 1963. I never asked myself with the first publication of my poems: where is it all going to lead to? My most recent work was a collaboration with poet Catherine. We used the sonnet form and were inspired by the photographic images of photographer Karen Moe, who took poignant shots of homeless street dog of inner Havana when she was there back in the nineties. The collaborative efforts of the “dogateers” resulted in a volume of poetry titled Dog The book was published by Mansfield Press of Toronto two years ago and included a dozen dog pics of Karen Moe’s. So my first publication is vastly different as night and day. My poetry now is far more refined and mature and settled stylistically, not groping for a style of writing poetry. The first publication will always be a starting point in my writing life.

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

The poetry was always there waiting to be unleashed from Day One. I never ever thought of writing fiction or non fiction. It was poetry first up from the time my grade teacher introduced to Kipling and the Empire of course. It was only after I had published a number of poetry volumes that I set about to write non fiction. I started to write memoirs of growing up in Toronto in the forties, being the son of Jewish immigrant parents from Poland. My boyhood memoirs, Escape from the Glue Factory was published by Exile Editions back in 78 and went into a second printing. I love the essay form and never once did I ever think of writing fiction, turning out a novel, for example. I am primarily a poet and a visual artist.

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?

It is a slow process, for sure, and while some projects take longer than others, I never think in terms of churning out a book of poems every year. It is a Labour of Love for me. Each poem leads to another poem tied thematically for some inexplicable reason, and soon I have a chain or bridge of poems. But that agglutinated bridge could take years. So if it takes five years to bring out another book of poems or essays—I say to myself, each title published is an event unto itself, to be celebrated by myself and my readership, and merely another book. I don’t work that way. I have to be inspired, or feel a tad inspired; obsessed with the project or why the hell do it at all? If you have no obsession you should be writing poetry. You have to have a creative pulse to write the stuff, be challenged in the process.

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 might begin with a fragment, a musical line running through my upper storey, and then this fragment germinates and tries to link itself up with other fragments and word linkages and then slowly ever so slowly a coherent pattern emerges on the page. The poem writes the poet, not the converse. It is a strange birthing process.

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

After forty years of writing poetry and non fiction, public readings are a conveyance of reading what is on the page and making it come alive for me and the audience. I usually do public performances to promote a recent book. After all I have a commitment to promote and sell the books for my publisher and get my work out to poet tasters and company. I never think that a public reading is counter productive, or counter to my writing. I have ever entertained that notion.

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?

I would be dead in the water if I entertained a theoretical concern about this poem or that poem. It would be like asking the magician to reveal a hat trick. I let the sublime do the theory and never ask question of myself as what is the theoretical concern or rationale in writing a given poem. If I did that I wouldn’t write poetry at all. My poetry speaks for itself. Some people have referred to me as a nature poet, others as a green poet concerned with the environment and there is an element of that in my poetry. I leave the matter of the theoretic in poetry to academics. The matter is foreign to me. As for the current question in my poetry—I can’t answer that, although I am sure some busybody psychoanalyst has the answer.

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?

The writer should fulfill his or her role as sage to the human tribe, and impart increments of intellectual illumination to elevate humanity, if the latter can be elevated by poetry. In my case, I write because I have to write. I have to constantly challenge myself in doing far more complex projects. I have no answer what the role of the writer should be. I write to escape hyper reality, while other writers in the real world thrive and make money for their publisher writing what is currently in vogue, like novels, you know, relevant things that I don’t want to ever concern myself with. I do, however, believe that my poetry is relevant, to those who seek the sublime art form, if it wasn’t for those haute poet tasters, my readers– I wouldn’t be motivated – vent my obsessions complete with demons --to write a damned thing. I leave the matter of the larger culture as it relates to me and my muse to me to Canlit academics and aesthetes outside academia to make value judgements on my poetry. Again I never ask why I have written this or that. I am not into self-analysis.

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

Editors play a vital role in the process of creative writing. A good editor is more than a mere copy editor, or general editor, but an advanced reader, the first reader, so to speak; he or she is on the ground floor, a vital reader with a carborundum eye-- who tells you exactly what is wrong with the direction you are taking in a narrative, whether it a poem, a novel, or a short story.. Now poetry editor is a more specialized editor. I sometimes work with an editor. Suffice it to say, if several or more intelligent readers, object to a line or word in a poem, or don’t understand what I am saying, then I had better say it differently --so that they have an inkling of what I am trying to say in a given poem. I am not short of vocabulary pertaining to poetry, the one thing I don’t want to do is get so private in my language that I baffle or lose the reader. I respect an editor who is brutally honest in his or her opinions of my writing. I am very suspicious of praise.

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

Back in the sixties a New York matron, Marguerite Harris, herself a poet was devastatingly gory in her honesty --of what in her steel trap of a mind, constituted a poem. She told me that neurotics merely defecate but poets do it in patterns. She also sternly advised me to “ put a little moon in your poems.” By that she meant that blandness could kill a poem. Another mentor, Al Purdy used to get his back up when I mentioned the word inspiration. He thought that perspiration got the poem written and inspiration just sparked a poem, but you had to work up a sweat in writing a poem. Another mentor, Milton Acorn, used to say it was the poem that wrote the poet. Hard to explain but he felt that poem would emerge when the poem wanted to emerge on the surface when the time was ready. There were qualifiers to go with that process, like sweating it out. until your guts hurt, for as Milton used to tell me when a poem didn’t arrive, “search your guts, Joe!”

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

I try to find my prose voice level. I find that too much in the way of poetics in prose, can occlude the narrative, obfuscate its meaning, and put the reader off. I aim for clear sentences, cut down on the adjectives, deathless prose, easy flowing, uncluttered. Hemmingway is my guide in that respect. In short, keep poetry and prose apart. Never amalgamate the two, else you will end up with an exotic stew and no readership. Read Harrison’s Generals Die in Bed, the best anti war memoir written by a Canadian about the carnage of the First World War. That’s the best example how prose should written, a minimalist book that ever was written. It should be a primer for Creative Writing Departments in this country. I write for intelligent readers in discipline, creative non fiction and poetry. I suspect there are less than five hundred readers in English Canada who might actually crack the covers of a poetry volume. Most books of poetry end up warehoused and gather dust, few poetry volumes actually sell. There is no market for poetry and salesmen from the more viable publishing houses I am certain take anti-acids when asked to promote poetry books in the book chains.

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 can honestly say that I have no consistent routine. Look, I wear two hats. I write and I paint, and now I am drawing angels for a project I have in mind. If the muse is with me perhaps a suite of angel poems will materialize. With respect to the visual art, I have drawing shows coming up in Poetry Month, April and other shows in view, so I am busy. I live in the now. The now is my typical day. Sure, I have the odd writer’s block, but I am patient, knowing that lightning will strike in my backyard—and I write poetry. There are days when I find that I don’t want to do a damned thing. I try not to feel guilty about it.

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

I wish I could tell you that I turn to God. I don’t. Rather I go and finish an unfinished oil that I have been working on in my studio, and have abandoned for months.

13 - What do you really want?

Fun. Why should the younger set have it all? Maybe a trip to Pago Pago would be fun, at least before the place is submerged by the rising sea level

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?

David is right. I am a voracious reader of scientific essays and I have a passion for history, and historical research, and I must mention a penchant for exotic zoology I constantly read up on new species that are discovered in dormant volcanoes, and bizarre life forms in underwater caves and even more bizarre critters in the deepest ocean trenches, giant squid sucking in nitrogen from active volcanic chimneys at the bottom of the deepest oceans. I marvel at strange bioluminescent critters—vampire fish and giant clams that would eat your for a snack. It is all fuel for my imagination. Yes, David is right.

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

As I mentioned, I read scientific journals, focus on non fiction writings. Okay, I re-read Hunter Thompson and study his writing techniques and his dark humour. Poor guy shot himself—it was predictable, the Dark Side took over.

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

I would have followed my hunches, and didn’t –invest in gold when it was at the low mark of fifty bucks per ounce. I didn’t so I deserve to be on a tight budget when I travel abroad. Alas, I squandered my imagination on poetry instead of utilizing it to make money like “normal” people. Why couldn’t I have become the bourgeois poet?

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 probably would have been a currency speculator or developer. Okay, seriously, I don’t know, maybe I could have started a cult on one the Gulf Islands?

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

The devil made me do it, write poetry. My mind is not ready for loftier pursuits like attempting a novel.

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

I have no answer. The bulb has gone out in my upper storey.

20 - What are you currently working on?

At present I am working on a series of angel drawings eg angels in fur, dogs and cats, yours truly as an angel. Indeed, every angel has my face and sexy feathers, bright wings. As well as drawings angels, I accompany my angels with monsters and birds of prey. If I get lucky I will have another un-sellable product, a volume of angel poems.

[Joe Rosenblatt reads in Ottawa on November 13 at Gallery 101 as part of Max Middle's A B Series]

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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