Saturday, May 01, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Jeremy Stewart

Jeremy Stewart is the author of (flood basement (Caitlin Press), a poetic memoir of growing up in Prince George, BC, the manuscript of which was shortlisted for the 2008 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. His poems have appeared in online journals such as ditch, Treeline and stonestone, and in print in the Forestry Diversification Project anthology (UNBC Press). Stewart is a prolific producer of chapbooks and broadsides; he was the 2007 winner of the Barry McKinnon Chapbook Award. He has recently successfully defended his creative MA thesis, written under the supervision of Rob Budde—a novelistic long poem entitled “In Singing, He Composed a Song”—at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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?
As I’m sure many would say, my first book made me feel like a “real writer.” It also showed me how excited people were about what I was doing by giving them a concrete way to express it—my boss bought a copy for herself, and then copies for her son and her stepdad for Christmas. Conversely, it also inspired a series of prank phone calls in which an unknown caller mocked me for self-publishing, which of course I didn’t do! Yeah, that was weird.

Reflecting on my first book also made me aware of what I wanted to do differently. My new poems are either more lyric or more anti-lyric than (flood basement, and attempt less to get the lyric and anti-lyric to work together. I guess I’m not trying to get every idea into one book anymore.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing songs when I was 11. I saw Nirvana on TV and I saved up my paper route money to buy an electric guitar (I still play in bands and I teach guitar lessons for a living). I didn’t really try to write poems per se until I was 18 and attending the College of New Caledonia. Barry McKinnon was my composition instructor. He was very funny, and he told us the only newspaper worth reading was the Village Voice. I had no idea who he was for at least a year. Then I stumbled on The the. in the CNC library and it blew my mind. Who would have thought? Poetry about Prince George! And that was how it really started.

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 depends on the project. Indeterminate Accumulation Anti / Ghazals, for example, takes four months to a year for 10 pages. I’m on section 3. I hope to eventually have 10. Meanwhile, something funny or very lyric might be just about done 10 minutes after the idea strikes. I do give myself quite a bit of time to edit, though.

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 will usually catch on a concept which is inspired by a word or phrase. The concept could be for a theme, a constraint, a writing process, etc. A couple years ago, I was walking down 7th Avenue in Prince George when I realized that it was not connected to the other 7th Avenue, and neither was it parallel to it; I thought to myself something like “to deliver pizza in this town, a person would need a degree in Prince Georgeography.” That term gave me an idea for a process of walking and tape recording myself improvising stories about all the places that have stories for me in this town. The scale of an idea comes from my sense of how much I could write connected to it. So, I think “Prince Georgeography” could someday be a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are a small but important part of my process. I use them to try on different versions of myself. When I do that, my partner, Erin, calls it “being obscure.” I like reading because I like to perform, meet people, drink free wine when available. It’s fun.

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’ve been reading a lot of theory, partly because I just finished an MA in English at the University of Northern British Columbia.  I am particularly interested in what I see as the connections between some of the ideas of Roland Barthes and of Deleuze & Guattari. This enthusiasm is manifested in my work in several ways. For one, I delight in the language of post-structuralism. It is a dense and ugly jargon that reminds me at once of the sleek, sinister look of an Uzi and of a trembling forest of stems. About a week ago, I defended my creative thesis project, called “In Singing, He Composed a Song,” a text that deploys the rhizome as a polyvalent structural strategy.

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?
I think writing is the ‘original’ cyborg technology. I think that as our technology becomes less like an Uzi and more like a forest, writing will become more important, not less, and the figure of the writer, as a social technology, will have to adapt to that. I think we will have more and more and more writers. I only worry for the future of literacy (I know, awfully conservative).

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have worked with two editors: Rob Budde and Vici Johnstone. Both of them were very hands-off, but in different ways. Rob asks questions more, and Vici shares her opinion more. Both pick their battles carefully, and both were wonderful to work with. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
That’s a tough call—there are three items, all related to Barry McKinnon, and one of which comes from Al Purdy. The first comes from Barry’s father, Ben McKinnon, who apparently told a very depressed Barry to “root hog or die.” I think that one explains itself. The second was a piece of advice from Al Purdy to Barry regarding poetry readings: “read the hits.” This can be extended to many areas of life. The third was Barry quoting somebody: “poets gotta hustle.” I have discovered this to be true.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to songwriting)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving between genres has been the source of a lot of the energy in my writing. Imagining how the form limits the realization of a concept is often an important part of my tinkering process when I’m starting work on an idea. I also take breaks from one genre to work on others. In addition to writing poetry for the page, song lyrics, prose fiction, and essays, I also design posters and write bios for musicians when I can get the work. All these kinds of writing keep slipping into each other in ways that are exciting to me (advertising is especially infectious because it is so powerful).

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 and feed the cats and dog and make coffee. Then, I sit for two hours drinking coffee, reading and writing. Then I walk to the studio where I teach guitar lessons. I am looking forward to spending more time reading, writing, and drinking coffee now that my MA is done. I also like having deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise. They keep me up at night, writing.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I do a lot of walking; or, at least, I used to. I would walk around taking pictures day and night. I haven’t had as much time for that lately. But that’s how I reconnect with myself. I also like to read. I like Border Crossings and Pitchfork. Sometimes an inspiration from one of these will catch me by surprise. I find that rereading my own notebooks can be very illuminating after a couple of years—the affirmation that I really was onto something, the happiness of finding a good, forgotten idea.

13 - What do you really want?
Just a closer walk with Jesus. And a warehouse which I can use as a concert hall, an art studio and gallery, a space to throw giant pay-what-you-want breakfasts, etc. In short, I want a closer walk with Jesus in Andy Warhol’s factory.

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?
Listening to people talk is number one. I like people’s stories, and I like how they tell them. I like fragments of conversation out of context. When I go to an art show opening, I look at the art, I drink the free wine, but I also listen to people. Art openings, readings, and parties are great places to hear people talk, and they usually inspire me on another level, too, by provoking an intense experience of dissatisfaction with the social world as I find it. Well, dissatisfaction mixed with excitement: so much right, so much wrong, in terms of having a social milieu that encourages artists (rather than just screwing up their minds with useless, gossipy garbage).

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My PG poets are awesome: Rob Budde, Barry McKinnon, Si Transken, Ken Belford, Gillian Wigmore... Carly Stewart is a swell local prose writer... W.G. Sebald, David Foster Wallace, Mikhail Bulgakov, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Nabokov, Augusto Boal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Milan Kundera, the apostles, Robert Kroetsch, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lisa Robertson, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino... I suppose I sound like a decayed modernist. I am endlessly fascinated by the way prose is not speech and not thought, and by what else it can be.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I really want to make some films. I have a couple of super 8 cameras and tons of sound equipment. I’ve written screenplays (none yet produced), but I think I would like to make something more open-ended. A series of surreal shorts, maybe.

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 do some gardening. When I was an assistant to the curator of Barkerville last year, one of my tasks was to help restore Barkerville’s historic gardens. Knowing nothing about gardening coming into the position, I had to learn a lot. Now I’d like to try some at home. I think it’s pretty political.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My grandmother, Linda Hankins. She was an elementary school teacher. She taught me to read very young. She also encouraged me in every artistic, creative, or intellectual pursuit she could. I think / hope I mostly grew up to be the way she wanted. She was great. (Oh, and I also got too old to become a rock star.)

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book: that’s a toss up between The Pink Guitar by Rachel Blau Duplessis and On Being Blue by William H. Gass.

I recently watched something great; not a film, but a TV series shot on film: David Lynch’s flawed masterpiece, Twin Peaks, over and over again with Erin.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am preparing for “In Singing, He Composed a Song” to go off to prospective publishers. I am starting work on a fairly conventional prose novel about how the teenage singer of a death metal band becomes a Christian. It’s set in Prince George, Burns Lake, and Vanderhoof, BC, in the 1990s. I am imagining this book somewhere between Hard Core Logo, Augustine’s Confessions, and Catcher in the Rye.

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