Greg Santos is from Montreal and currently lives between New Haven, Connecticut and Paris, France. He is the author of The Emperor's Sofa (DC Books, 2010). He is the poetry editor of pax americana and is on the editorial staff of the Paris-based journal, Upstairs at Duroc.
Photo credit: © Studio Duda
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, The Emperor’s Sofa, was just released, so I still think it’s too early to tell how its publication has changed my life. That being said, when my publisher, Steve Luxton of DC Books, told me that my book was now “out”, it made me feel like Brock Lesner must have felt when he won his first fight after making the transition from professional wrestling to MMA: legit.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first poetry actually started out as songs. I borrowed my father’s guitar and composed song lyrics thinking that Greg Santos originals would impress girls. In the end, I don’t think I impressed too many girls (except, perhaps, my wife!) but the poetry just kept on trucking, even after I put the guitar away. I did try to write fiction but I could never care enough to finish most of my stories and the ones that I did finish never felt quite right. Poetry, though, fits me like a glove.
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?
The beginnings of a poem can jump out of my head and onto the page very quickly, but then I’ll spend enormous amounts of time rewriting a piece. I tend to have “false starts” where the first few lines set the tone for the poem but are then ultimately removed. More often than not, my final poems are completely different from my first drafts.
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?
The majority of the poems in The Emperor’s Sofa were written as standalone pieces, except for the poems that make up the third section of the book, Travels Around the Empire. I wrote the poem of the same name and I liked its otherworldly tone so much that I set about writing more poems that could go together and function as a body of work.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t write my poems specifically to be performed in front of an audience but I do love reading out loud. It gives me a buzz when I can see and hear people reacting to a piece.
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 don’t think theory, I just write.
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?
For me, writing poetry is a vocation, a calling. It’s something I’m compelled to do. Gertrude Stein once said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I write for myself because I have to, but if someone reading my work is moved by my writing, then that’s a lovely bonus. I don’t think a writer should have to do anything but write – although sometimes you have to brush your teeth.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I was lucky to have Jason Camlot, whom I respect and admire very much, as my editor for The Emperor’s Sofa. I also show everything I write with my wife and she is a really thoughtful reader and editor. I think it’s important to have someone you trust give you honest feedback before your work is released to the masses.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Before you write, read, read, read.
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?
I jot down notes in my Moleskin throughout the day but I get the most done on my laptop at night. I do the majority of my writing after my wife and infant daughter are asleep, otherwise I feel antisocial.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I spend time with my wife. I play with my daughter. I go for a walk. I tutor Frenchmen. I watch reruns of The Simpsons. I surf the interweb. I check out what’s new on Facebook. I Google my own name. I go back and fiddle with unfinished poems. I read the professional wrestling dirt sheets. I pray to the poetry gods to be able to complete another poem.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I live a nomadic lifestyle, so the idea of home is constantly in flux but since the birth of my daughter, home is the sweet smell of her hair, hand sanitizer, and laundered sleepers hanging to dry.
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 love going to museums. When I was in grad school in Manhattan I regularly visited the fifth floor of the MoMA to see the Van Goghs, the Picassos, and their cool Surrealist collection, but especially Henri Rousseau’s paintings, The Dream and The Sleeping Gypsy. I could spend hours looking at Rousseau’s work. I’d like to think that if my poems could visually come to life, they’d be inhabited by characters from the worlds he created.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The poets to whom I turn for inspiration include John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Elizabeth Bishop, Stuart Ross, James Tate, Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Matthew Zapruder, David McGimpsey, and Ben Mirov.
Non-poetic works that were really important to me during the writing of The Emperor’s Sofa were Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Get married? Check. Have a kid? Check. Write a book? Check. Live in New York and Paris? Double check. I think I’m doing pretty well so far, actually! I don’t know. Get a full-time teaching gig. Write a second book. Get my driver’s license.
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?
I would have been an actor or a cartoonist. Luckily I gave up those pipe dreams for the glitz and glamour of a life poetic.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was very artistic growing up. I drew a lot, painted, played piano and guitar, sang, was into theatre in high-school and college; I wrote screenplays, short stories, and poetry. I knew I would ultimately have a career in the arts. At one point, though, I realized that I could be in danger of being okay at many things but not great at anything specific. That thought terrified me. While I loved acting, I enjoyed the creative freedom of writing my own stuff even more. After I took my first poetry workshop at Concordia University with a real live poet (David McGimpsey was my professor), I just knew that I wanted to buckle down and focus on learning everything I could about poetry. I owe McGimpsey a huge debt of gratitude – and also a lot of beers.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Mammoth (DC Books, 2010) by Larissa Andrusyshyn and Ghost Machine (Caketrain, 2010) by Ben Mirov are very moving accounts of loss, the former dealing with the loss of a parent and the latter with the end of a relationship. Toy Story 3 was brilliant. That lazy-eyed baby: creepy!
19- What are you currently working on?
My wife is on a research fellowship for her PhD in Paris for almost a year and while we’re here, I’ve given myself the task of writing a poem a day. I’m hoping I’ll be able to use these for a second book. You can read some of them on my blog: Moondoggy’s Pad (http://moondoggy.blogspot.com).