Sunday, October 04, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Stephen Rowe

Stephen Rowe was a finalist for the 2008 Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers and his poetry has appeared in The Antigonish Review, CV2, Iota, The Newfoundland Quarterly, The Panhandler, Paragon, Rhythm Poetry Magazine, The Society 2008 and The Toronto Quarterly. His first collection of poems, Never More There, will be released this fall from Nightwood Editions. To visit his blog go to:

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?

I had released a very limited edition of a chapbook, entitled Below the Spruce, as part of a winter long workshop I attended with Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton. While it wasn't the first time my work had appeared in print, it was the first time I had attempted to write a cohesive grouping of poems. I had been reading Waiting for Saskatchewan by Fred Wah and that inspired me to attempt the haibun form, which set the style for the entire chapbook. It also lead me into meeting with a couple Canadian poets I admire, among them Alison Pick. My first full length collection is due out in October. These poems are very different from my earlier writing in that they are a) better due to experience, and have a number of themes that connect them, giving them similar directions. During the editing process I learned how important it is to keep an open mind about my own work and try to view what I do from the outside (i.e.: reader sensibility). Not everything I liked that I had written was fit for that grouping of poems.

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

Poetry is something my father flirted with when he was younger. As an English teacher with a love of Latin he had a good grounding in literature and the technicalities of language which rubbed off on me. In university I majored in English and took a number of courses in Latin to feed my interests in both areas. Studying Latin was the best thing I'd ever done to improve my understanding of the details of language. My father introduced me to Tennyson, something for which I'm forever grateful. I guess I read mostly non-fiction (classical/medieval history) before attending university. I was never a big fiction reader, even today I read far fewer novels than histories and poetry.

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 varies depending on the project. If it's a smaller bunch of poems it is usually sparked by something relevant to my own life by way of personal experience or interest, meaning I probably have a decent background in the subject matter. In this case it's much quicker to get started. If I'm writing something larger with a particular aim and direction, like I am now, then some extra thought is required; there are larger structures with which to be concerned. I almost never take notes. I'm not that organized. I go through periods of quick writing that comes easy and periods when I can't produce a single line worth keeping. In the case of the former, there is usually quite a bit of editing and revising involved, but with the latter I just take a breather, sometimes for as long as five or six months before even trying again. I find a break helps charge the batteries.

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'd say a little of both. I usually like working short pieces, but try to keep them connected in some way. I think, for the most part, that since these poems ultimately come from me and my experiences, there are some common threads, albeit subconscious, that run through each making grouping easier. This is particularly the case when I write poems close together and go with whatever I'm concerned with at the time. This time around I'm trying to work on a book from the beginning. In doing so I've picked a primary subject or theme and try to explore all the edges of it. It's a very different process because I've noticed myself worrying about repeating material or running out of angles to go with down the road.

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

Thus far I've had only a few public readings, so I can't really say that they figure much into my own writing. The readings I've done I've enjoyed even though they wreck my nerves. As a teacher I'm very concerned with time frames for my classes, so I worry about how much time I will/should take up at a reading. You'd think that speaking in front of rooms full of kids everyday and singing on stage from time to time would prepare me for public speaking, but I still get seriously nervous in the spotlight.

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 think the questions I want to answer arise as I go along. Obviously with my first book I was concerned with origins and people I associate with having taken me this far, but I didn't plan it that way. I'm currently working on a group of poems linked to relocation between rural and urban settings and vice versa. In this case I'm looking at how people deal with moving, what social factors come into play, etc. I don't know what I will be writing about in the future.

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?

One role of the writer is to entertain, whether in a comic/dramatic sense, or in asking the reader to entertain the considerations the writer is presenting, serious or otherwise. I think there should be a level of enjoyment, of ideas and ways of expressing them, new things the reader has yet to be exposed, but also a healthy flirtation with the uncomfortable. In this sense the writer is much like a film maker or artist just using a different medium. Currently I see the writer struggling in larger culture. There are so many media out there, many with instant gratification as their primary appeal. Reading takes time and, to some degree, dedication on the part of the reader. Not everyone is into that.

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

I think it's essential. One thing I wanted from the publishing process was a good editing of the manuscript. I'm a firm believer that other eyes can tell you much about your own work that you can't see being so close to it. Working with George Murray on my forthcoming collection was an excellent experience. I was forced to look at the manuscript in a way I hadn't before and I think the finished product is much better for it.

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

“When everything is easy one quickly gets stupid” - Maxim Gorky.

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

Since I'm a teacher my time isn't always my own and a regular routine is hard to keep. I find lately that writing on the weekends works well. I get up between 6:00-6:30am and put my two Labrador retrievers out and then boil the kettle (tea does wonders for creativity). I usually work on something until noon or later and often come back to it a couple times that day and in the days that follow. I always finish a complete first draft at each sitting and don't leave pieces partially done. I find my frame of mind needs to remain consistent in order to finish something and feel any coherence in it. This is part of the reason why I don't currently write fiction, I don't know if I have the staying power to complete a creative piece of long prose.

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

Other writers. I usually pick up a book, either one I've read and enjoy or one I haven't yet read. I play a lot off other people's ideas, roll them around in my mind and alter them or sometimes come up with ideas of my own. Sometimes all it takes is to see how someone else approached a subject to kick start you in a similar or, quite often, opposite direction altogether. I've found myself turning to Patrick Lane, Alden Nowlan, Philip Larkin, and George Bowering lately, all poets I've greatly admired.

12 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

Subject? Latin. Some kind of important life lesson? Let us never misuse the subjunctive!

13 - 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 think you have to be open to as many sources of inspiration as possible. I'm sometimes influenced by a particular scene, or something I've experienced personally. Sometimes geography plays a roll in my writing; history, mythology, folklore. I'm deeply in love with folk music, both local and otherwise, so that can't help but figure into my writing at some point.

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

Poets I love: Marcus Aurelius, any of the Anglo-Saxons, Chaucer, the Romantics, Tennyson, Browning, Rilke, Carl Sandburg, Philip Larkin, E. J. Pratt, Irving Layton, Patrick Lane, Alden Nowlan, George Bowering, Mary Dalton, Alison Pick, Lorna Crozier, Al Pittman, etc. I love reading primary sources from history, particularly of the classical/medieval variety.

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

Travel. This is probably one that everyone says, but it's true. I spent years studying medieval history and have not yet had the chance to go to Europe.

16 - 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?

My wife is a librarian and from what I've seen of her profession I think I'd enjoy that. Regardless of what other career I might have wanted, I think I would still write.

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

The death of my best friend in a car accident a number of years back. The first poem I remember writing came from trying to express what was going through my head at the time, trying to make some sense of it. It was all bad sentimental doggerel, but it made me realize the power words can have.

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

I'll have to go with Karen Solie's Pigeon. Next to that I'll say James Langer's first collection Gun Dogs. As far as movies go, I really enjoyed Watchmen, Star Trek and District 9.

19 - What are you currently working on?

A collection of poems dealing with relocation, rural vs urban places and people. I'm also working on some translations of Horace and some other Latin poets.

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