Sean Howard (b. 1965) is the author of two collections of poetry, Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011). His poetry has been widely published in Canada and elsewhere, and anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 (Tightrope Books). His experimental Shadowgraphs project is currently being supported by a creative writing grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Outside of creative writing, Sean is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, researching nuclear disarmament issues and the political history of modern physics. From 1996-2003, he was the editor of the UK-based arms control journal Disarmament Diplomacy. In 1999, Sean moved from the UK to Canada and now lives in the beautiful lobster-fishing village of Main-à-Dieu, Cape Breton.
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 didn’t so much change my life as change how I felt about it; it was something I never expected to happen, and that nobody can take away from me. And it also, I’m sure, opened the door to further publications and new readers. And knowing you’re being read, though it sounds blindingly obvious, is the most important thing, because (for me) what matters most about a poem is never the poet; it’s always the reader.
To have a second book published so soon, by a publisher (Gaspereau Press) of some of my favourite poets (Robert Bringhurst, George Elliott Clarke, Peter Sanger, Jan Zwicky), was almost more surprising, as was Gaspereau’s faith in my most experimental styles. The feeling of intense relief wasn’t repeated, but the thrill was certainly deeper – together with the same, incomparable excitement at the prospect of reaching a wider audience.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Why do you assume I came to poetry first? Until I was 16, I most loved writing stories, then essays, and almost never wrote poetry. Then, though I’ve continued to write fiction, poetry took hold of me (it really felt like a possession) and hasn’t let go. Why it happened so suddenly and powerfully, I don’t know: I’d enjoyed reading poetry since I was about 12 (Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas), and certainly felt and respected its power, but never heard it calling to me.
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?
Well, the pattern for me has been to concentrate on one major, long-term project while writing other poetry as spontaneously as possible. And I try to take long breaks between projects, as they usually end up exhausting me. At the moment, for example, I’m coming to the final phase of a project called Shadowgraphs (which I’ll talk about later) I began in 2006; an earlier project, The Butterfly Nets (almost entirely unpublished), lasted from 1993 to 2000. In both cases, the experimental techniques I use involve multiple drafts and (hopefully) distillations; it’s all fairly laborious and painstaking, and not always alchemical!
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?
My two books consist of separate pieces which I think and hope work well together, but weren’t written with a collection in mind. The two projects I mentioned were certainly conceived and premeditated as a single whole, though with each part (ideally) strong enough to stand alone.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I waited so long – over 20 years – for any appreciable success that public readings are a real thrill and privilege, and something I prepare for very intensely. I can’t imagine this will ever change; the ‘high’ I feel, and can sometimes sense in the room, is, well, highly addictive.
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?
These are good but hard questions, so what I’d like to do is reproduce a short ‘Author’s Statement’ Gaspereau Press asked me for when Incitements was published. I called it ‘Dreamscapes: a Note on Motive and Method,’ and I wanted it to be included in the book itself, as I think it addresses questions many readers have about my work. I hope it’s not too long:
“Incitements consists of three experimental responses to other texts: White Salt Mountain by Peter Sanger, a creative meditation on the poetic nexus of psyche and place; Seashores: Summer Nature Notes for Nova Scotians, by Merritt Gibson; and Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, a fictionalized account of a Berlin couple’s bizarrely heroic postcard-writing campaign against Nazism. All three works are admirable prose achievements; my intent, in each case, was to tap the immense poetic energy I sensed in the writing – to enter (as it felt like) the subconscious world, or dreamscape, of each book. All prose, I believe, exhibits, or rather disguises, such a structure: presents a surface that, seen from above, conceals its own depth. Deploying a variety of techniques – indebted principally to William Burroughs’ dada-inspired ‘cut-up’ method – I try in these sequences to get under that skin, pearl-dive to the astonishing ‘underworld’: a place of relentless imagistic flux, metaphoric excess, a quantum poetics unbound by, yet somehow binding, the classical rules of ‘reality’. When you “look under rocks,” Merritt Gibson cautioned, remember: “the animals that live on the undersurface are different from those that live on the uppersurface.” So it is when we dream (and perhaps when we die): so it is when we turn language’s stone.”
As Marx said, the point of philosophy isn’t to describe but change the world; and poetry, I believe, has the power to change how people see the world, including, crucially, the world of language. Whether the world notices is, however, another question – your next one, in fact!
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 poetry, in a prosaic world, is resistance: Yeats’ ‘centre’ has fallen apart to such an extent that just to be poetic today is subversive. I like to turn Adorno’s famous formulation around: poetry after Auschwitz, he said, is impossible – but what if it was prose that made Auschwitz possible? By prose I mean all unpoetic, uncreative, mechanical, dead language: the denial and attempted extermination of the poetic dimension of all existence and experience. The haunting question isn’t the quality or integrity of poetic resistance but its effectiveness, its cultural resonance.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t know how unusual this is, but neither of my books required any real editing, other than minor questions of style and consistency. I think, though, that I’m a pretty harsh editor of my own stuff, and I know that I often hate working with myself!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve written quite a few academic papers with my wife, Lee-Anne Broadhead, a brilliant political studies prof at Cape Breton University, and found the process intense and challenging but very rewarding. I’ve never really enjoyed writing prose on my own, and want to do it as little as possible in the future. I admire some literary criticism, e.g. Northrop Frye and the wonderful Nova Scotia poet and essayist Peter Sanger, but I don’t personally feel any inclination to write much about poetry.
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’m lucky enough to have the time and space to write at home most weekdays. Early morning (6-10) is often my favourite and best time to write poetry; in the afternoons I tend to turn to other kinds of work and writing. I also love walking, as the best way to let new ideas come to me, or solve some nagging problems.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My problem, so far, has been overwriting, being swamped by The Thing, as opposed to writer’s block. When I get overloaded, walking helps enormously, as does listening to some types of music (none of it vocal), especially intense jazz. Luckily, I don’t often struggle with what to write about. My main project, for instance – the Shadowgraphs mule behind which I’ve spent hundreds of hours ‘ploughing’ – is an experimental rewriting, or rigorous subversion, of every Nobel physics lecture delivered in the 20th century (150 in total – 149 by men!), so the subject matter and main themes are all there in front of you.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I lived in England until my mid-thirties, and one of the things I miss (though I love Cape Breton) is watching cricket: so the fragrance of freshly cut grass in the summer often produces a quite powerful nostalgia, and not just for the sport itself but all the family, friends and places associated with it.
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?
My predominant style is experimental – lyrical, I hope, but also fragmentary, momentary, non-sequential, non-confessional and non-narrative. Using cut-up and collage also generates random or spontaneous images (at least as a first stage in the process). I think I can say I’ve been drawn to this approach more by certain forms of music than writing – free jazz escaping the ‘narrative’ confines of melody and harmony, the incorporation of chance into composition by Cage and Stockhausen, and, most importantly to me now, the ‘moment-form’ music of Webern, many of whose works, as Stockhausen said, “are so very short, we can call them moments, though they weren’t called so at the time: the critics didn’t know what to call them. It’s music that is extremely condensed, pieces only twelve seconds, twenty seconds long. Just hanging in the air: nothing derived and nothing followed, that was it.” That’s how I’d love to write, though I still have a long way to go.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In terms of method, the most important influence is obviously Burroughs, though my view of language as revelatory and inexhaustible comes primarily from Joyce (who, I’d say, came to his view through Blake). I have many favourite poets, while still returning often to my ‘first love,’ Wordsworth. And it was Basho who first made me fall in love with ‘micro’ poetry (haiku being pure ‘moment-form’ art).
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are lots of things I’d like to do that I can’t do, playing jazz being first on the list (just above mime and acting). In terms of poetry, I hope I have many more years to ‘fail better’ at writing like Webern!
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?
Again, if I had the talent, jazz. And if I hadn’t become a writer? I’ll be quite honest: I’m pretty sure I’d be dead.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know. As I mentioned, when poetry grabbed hold of me it possessed me: I felt like I found and lost myself at the same time. This sounds (and may be) absurd, but I didn’t know who I was before I became someone else!
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great poetry book would be Berryman’s Dream Songs, which I shouldn’t be confessing in public that I hadn’t read before. In terms of a novel, To the End of the Land by David Grossman. I’m not really much of a film fan, but I recently rewatched (for the first time in 30 years) Ken Loach’s masterpiece, Kes.
20 - What are you currently working on?