Saturday, April 28, 2012

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Chris Jennings

Chris Jennings’s first book, Occupations (Nightwood), came out in April 2012.  He is also the author of the chapbook Vacancies (believeyourown press, 2003), and his poems and critical work have appeared in magazines, journals, and Best Canadian Essays 2011.  He was a founding editor of filling Station magazine and an assistant editor for the University of Toronto Quarterly, and he is currently on the board of Arc Poetry Magazine.

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?

If either my chapbook or, now, Occupations, has changed my life at all, the change is in where I lay my expectations. I’ve gone from seeing the book as an end goal that makes the work tangible and, hopefully, lets it move around on its own to seeing it as part of an on-going activity that includes writing about poetry, doing reviews, and generally just being (hopefully) a recognizable part of the Canadian poetry conversation.

As for change over time, I think there's a stylistic through-line across now and then. I'd like to think I've gotten better at nuancing the work and playing around with different kinds of structure, but I'm not sure I believe in that kind of progress in a poet's work. At least, I don't think the poet is qualified to identify that kind of progress if only because what's new often seems more immediate. I’m not, at least.  It also makes me a little sad to think about the exception to this - the poet who is trying to recapture a lost verve and who is constantly aware of what he or she has lost.  The one difference I can put my finger on is that I can work comfortably in a more diverse range of poetics.  I now have different projects working different poetics in different states of disrepair. Some of these poems were cut from Occupations because they stuck out unduly. It's a situation that makes me feel like I'm caught between this and that from time to time - and then I'll get an idea that lands firmly in one mode or the other and it's like a release. I've never been prolific; setting up additional obstacles for myself is par for the course.

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

This answer is probably part fiction because it's me looking back and trying to devise an answer based on what little part of me was aware of my motivation for doing anything at that time in my life.

When I was in junior high, I think I was that pretty common type - the kid who wants to be a writer but doesn't spend much time sitting down to write. I read a lot, and I wrote chunks of fiction, but I wasn’t really thinking about causality or structure, and I had no sense of how to choose relevant details.  And so I had no patience for what felt like the painful process of creating context and getting characters out of bed in the morning.  I wanted to confront them immediately with the zombie dog or the genetically engineered cow seeking revenge. (My first "published" work - in the high school lit mag. - began: "My name is Cow. I am a cow. My parents, not surprisingly, were also cows. This explains the lack of imagination in my naming.")  The same obstacle existed for non-fiction but with the additional anxiety that I knew I knew, and had experienced, almost nothing.  I eventually got over some of that to write essays and papers, though I still wanted to write aphorisms rather than descriptive bibliographies, and I’ve written fiction since as well, but I’ve never tried to publish it.  I've gotten much better at figuring out how to do it, but I haven't worked at it enough to be happy with anything I’ve done, so I'm still not in any hurry to send it out.

I didn’t start writing poetry with much purpose until after I'd already done a year as an undergrad at the University of Calgary. I'd taken the big survey courses in English lit. from beginning to present, and the whole first semester was poetry of one kind or another - Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Faerie Queene, Shakespeare, the Metaphysicals, Milton, "The Rape of the Lock", the Romantics.... I was aiming for an English degree at that point only because I didn’t know what else to do and because I thought it would be relatively easy.  Then poetry, especially the lyric poetry, defeated me.  The longer works weren’t easy, so you could get into the narrative flow, but because they were longer, it was much harder to hold them all in your head when it came time to write an essay, and I have never been good at taking notes. I felt like I had to find my way with the lyric.

I fell into the trap of thinking that there were “hidden meanings” in the lyrics because I was told they were there and, hey, they must be hidden because I didn’t see them.  I now think of this as a consequence of poetry illiteracy; I didn’t know how to read a poem because I didn’t understand the importance of form, I had no education in formal rhetoric including figurative language, and I really didn’t even understand generally what makes for good writing either grammatically or stylistically.  And I found it much easier to work through these things by trying to write poems than by trying to understand other people’s poetry. There was a lot of banging my head against the wall and writing some really awful poems, and, over time, a lot of resisting the influences of people around me who were much more into non-traditional poetics.  Things really only gained some momentum when I was both trying to write poems and studying poetry with a really good professor, Alexandra West.  She didn’t teach poems as much as poetry literacy, and that was a huge help.  She also gave us Paul Fussell’s Poetic Metre/Poetic Form, which was my first exposure to writing about poetry that I both understood and from which I started to understand how to write about structure and content as part of a whole.  I’ve written poems and about poetry in lock-step ever since.

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?

If I kept everything I wrote, the way you would if you were working on paper in a notebook, I’d say that the poems come out of copious notes.  The delete button makes it look like it comes out in some close-to-final state, but I am a tyrannical self-editor.  I work on key phrases, especially at the beginning of a poem, for weeks – sometimes on the computer but often just walking around with them in my head trying to distill them to the right formula.  Then, sometimes the poem comes quickly for a few lines before there’s another knot to be worried.  Other times, that aphoristic chunk sits there looking for a body.  I should add, these are not aphoristic bits I would ever publish on their own; they’re kernels.  Beyond this, it’s really haphazard.  Unlike, say, Mavis Gallant, I have not structured my life to create the conditions I need to work more diligently from notes to drafts to “perfection.”  I don’t know if I could, to be honest, because those conditions are not solely the conditions that would make me write.

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?

It’s really all over the map.  I have a stub of a book project that’s a riff on Pliny’s Brief Lives – the poems for that book aren’t things I would just start on their own.  That came to me as a book.  Another project I’ve been working on for a long time has always been a book, but some poems come to me and they have so many possible articulations that I want to build something bigger than one poem out of them.  That usually ends up in a sequence of some description – between the short poem and the book.  In general, I’m not prolific enough to be programmatic.

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

I enjoy reading, and I do spend a lot of time listening to and voicing my poems when I’m writing them.  I don’t know how else to think about the sound of a poem than to voice it. The only impact it has on the way I write is that preparing for a reading does force me to get into that head-space again, and I find that I will finish things or push through difficult bits to get them done for that reading deadline, even if I don’t intend to read that poem and that particular event.  It’s an audience thing; there’s nothing more motivating for me to finish a poem than an audience –  simply because, if there’s no audience with whom to share it, I can work out most of the poem in my head for my own satisfaction.

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?

Well, yes and no.  I wouldn’t say I’m writing out of a theory either critical or political.  But many of my poems have loosely connected theoretical origins – can x form or structure or technical approach work if I use it like this?  If so, what can I learn about the way that element of form or technique works that I can apply in other poems where it’s no longer a hypothesis for experiment but simply part of the fabric of the poem?  Can I write a good poem that challenges bits of what we think about poetry and open up other ways of working?  If there’s a big theory behind this, it’s got something to do with connecting poetry’s roots in classical rhetoric and schemes to some of the experimental and theoretical  discourses that present as avant garde but that often seem to me to be an extension of something already implicit in the traditional tools.

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 in general will always have a role.  When I taught, my favorite line was that writing is thinking refined by time.  Writers in whatever field, including those who are not writing for the public like the policy writers and the corporate report writers, are putting the shape on ideas people will take up and on which they will act and base decisions.  Creative writers do this in the most conspicuous and open way and often with ideas that are very broad and fundamental, and sometimes those ideas are so firmly established that they get taken for truth, and a good writer can turn that supposed truth on its head. There are times when that’s exactly what’s needed. On the other hand, I remember hearing the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney tell an anecdote about arriving at a family funeral and discovering that he was simply expected to have prepared something to say because, after all, he was the poet and was needed to put words on people’s grief.

So I’d say there’s a role in shaping thought and a role in expressing the irrational and it’s bloody high and difficult as roles go, but thankfully, there isn’t really an enforcement agency.  And it isn’t a role every writer assumes automatically, willingly or well, but that’s a different question.

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

Both and neither.  It’s difficult because you don’t become a poetry editor without having a vision of poetry and how it works and what it does, so you can get into conversations where you’re really arguing questions of vision and not of technique.  This is essential because that process forces you to sharpen your own understanding of what you’re trying to do in a poem or a book, particularly when the conversation goes into questions of what you’re trying to do with the art.  I find having a few trusted people I can show things in progress is a huge help in getting past my internal editor, who is far more silencing than anyone I’ve met.

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

Toss up between “Be what you wish to seem,” and  “Chaos is hard.  Fools tire quick.”  If you mean specifically writing advice, it’s a toss up.  Doug Barbour gives a talk about the importance of reading great writers if you want to be a writer and his advice is that you’re going to be influenced by all the rhythms and clichés you hear around you anyway, so you might as well combat or supplement them with echoes of the language in its better moments. Raymond Carver’s editing philosophy, that you only stop when the only change you make between drafts is to put back the commas you took out in the previous edit, also works.

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

It’s pretty much a core trait that I move between these two genres.  They’re different ways of approaching the same questions, and so I don’t really see them as that different.  In the critical work, I’m writing prose to talk about someone else’s poetry, but I’m thinking about poetry and language and ideas in much the same way as when I’m trying to write poems.  I don’t mean that I’m trying to hold other poets to what I want them to do or what I’d do if I were them, and, maybe more importantly, I know my own poetry doesn’t set an unattainable standard.  It’s just the same mental space and different ways of moving around in it.

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 don’t have one.  It’s a huge flaw.  Maybe I should change that advice answer to reflect the bit about Mavis Gallant organizing her life around writing?  But that would be hypocritical of me since I have never successfully changed my life with the intention of improving the conditions I need to be a more successful or more prolific writer.  My typical day begins with a lot of trying to wake up, then dog walking and then work.  Sometimes the dog walk is like journaling time, but not always. In terms of my writing, a better question might be how my days end, because it’s often late at night, after another dog walk, when I get into a bit of a fugue that allows me to make some progress on a poem.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Nothing inspirational in my answer, I’m afraid – if I’m stalled, I probably need to be reading more and kicking my brain function to a higher level.  Poetry, the London Review of Books, maybe something challenging off of Arts and Letters Daily, maybe a story or novel by a writer whose style has a particular effect on me: Richard Ford, Mavis Gallant, Tobias Wolff, Victor Pelevin....  Music will do it sometimes, but not meditative music – something energetic, in almost any genre.  Sometimes it’s just digging through the million abandoned bits of poems I’ve never picked up again that makes me think “well, here...just finish this off because it’s better than anything you’re doing right now.”  But I can stall for a long time before anything works.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Lilacs.  I grew up in a house surrounded by lilac bushes, and I moved back to that house on more than one occasion, so it’s identified as home because it was so often the destination of homecomings. It doesn’t exist now.  But definitely lilacs – real ones on the bush, so there’s a mix of the green smell of the leaves and dry Calgary grass too.

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?

Yeah, all of the above.  I think it’s basically true that anything with a form or pattern that can be replicated by language in some fashion could influence the way I attempt to write a poem.  A friend of mine wrote a really interesting dissertation on architecture in relation to Walcott, Heaney and Brodsky.  Visual art and music are pretty easy to translate superficially – description, rhythm and repetition – and it’s much more challenging and therefore fun to try to carry any of them over with subtlety and colour.  Sometimes, though, you see the pattern in something else and it just clicks that you could represent that in language.  I like doing this best when the source of the pattern isn’t the theme of the poem, though – if there’s something about the cooling system in a Bugatti Veyron that I think makes for an interesting poetic structure, I wouldn’t necessarily use it to write a poem about a car or speed or plutocracy.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Loo-oo-ooong list.  The writers I’ve already mentioned are pretty much at the top along with Raymond Carver’s fiction, a bunch of Geoffrey Hill, Wallace Stevens, some Browning, Donne, Frank Kermode’s literary journalism, Anne Carson, some Charles Bernstein, some Walcott, some Braithwaite....  It starts to sound stupid when you run down a list like this, but honestly, I get itchy if I don’t know where in my house these books are.  I need to know they’re there when I need them.

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

Mostly?  Learn stuff.  Again, it could be a very long list.  Near the top right now, though I have been known to get bored with my own enthusiasms, is learning to play my guitar well enough to set some of my poems to music.  I’m jealous of people like Kevin Matthews who can do that, or, maybe more accurately, who can write with the guitar.

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 been working with a lot of scientists over the last few years, and, if I could go back far enough in time to get the right education, I think I’d enjoy being a research scientist.  I like the attention to detail, the meticulous observation, and in the case of some of the scientists I know, the opportunity to go to remote locations like the high Arctic for months at a time.

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

If by something else you mean pursuing another art, I think the answer is “default”.  Writing is the one art form where you’re using the tools every day.  You’re thinking about how to structure the language, how to describe things and relate information in a way that other people will understand –and often, you’re trying to make them understand it with the same nuances and emphases as you do.  There’s more of a start up cost with other art forms to get to a point of basic competence unless you’re talented, and I don’t think I’m talented in art or music.  Nothing would shut down my creativity like feeling incompetent.  Over time, I’m getting to a point where I feel I understand my guitar enough that I get that pleasure of doing something creative, and I love visual art enough to invest in learning how to use the tools, though I haven’t yet.

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

I don’t know about great, but I liked Ian McEwan’s Solar a whole lot more than most it seems.  Just like Saturday, I think most of the reviews and public discussions of the novel I’ve read are so fixated on his ability to sound credible when writing about science, and his facility with set pieces and unlikeable characters, that they don’t delve any deeper.  McEwan sets up a whole complex web of thinking about why scientific evidence doesn’t change what people believe about climate change, and his protagonist’s life is basically an allegory for that line of thought.

I’d rather put a book of poetry here; I’m sure there’s a book I’ve read recently that deserves to be here but I didn’t pay it enough attention.  Enough attention usually means I’ve read it as though I was going to write about it, and I haven’t done as much reviewing this past year.

I’m not much of a film guy to be honest.  I don’t seek out great films, so I don’t see many.  I watched J. Edgar on a plane recently mostly because the American poet Ai has written a few good dramatic monologues in Hoover’s voice.  Best I can do is probably the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which did a much better job of creating a mood of claustrophobia and corruption than the American version – but that may be a side effect of having to read subtitles.

20 - What are you currently working on?
The next thing I’d like to see in print is a book of critical essays that builds on some of the pieces I’ve written in the last decade.  It won’t be scholarly, but there’s a logic to it that, even if it changes no one’s mind, will at least ask them to think a little harder before telling me I’m wrong.  In poetry, I’ve been working on something called Ode Noir for a while and will probably work on for a while longer.  It’s a technical and narrative challenge over a long haul, so I’m always happy when I make progress with it.  I’m also collecting poems for a book I want to title Misanthropy as a nod to a character in Melville’s The Confidence Man.  Aspects of that character’s personality are the seeds for the book’s tone and mood.

[Chris Jennings launches his first trade poetry collection with Anita Lahey and David Groulx at 5pm today at The Manx Pub as part of the Plan 99 Reading Series/ottawa international writers festival]

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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