His poetry has appeared in Arc Magazine, The New Quarterly and Fiddlehead. Selections of his work have been included in Rutting Season (Buffalo Runs Press, 2009) and Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry (Cormorant Books, 2010). His first solo collection, Waking in the Tree House, was published in Spring 2012 by Cormorant Books. He is currently a contributing editor at ArtThreat.net, research associate with the Canadian Alternative Media Archive project, and director of OpenMedia.ca. His doctoral research explores aesthetics, truth and dissent in digital and performance cultures.
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?
It didn’t – my first chapbook, I mean. Neither did my second one. My chapbooks were vainglorious, a necessary striving for community but at an early age and long before I had developed any sense of, well, competency with a poem. I’ve just had my first book published, and it feels wonderful and humbling all at once. I am apparently a slow learner, and it has taken me many years and with wonderful mentorship to learn anything about writing a poem. Having the book published makes me feel more solid, if that makes any sense, like a tiny increase in density.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My grade 10 English teacher, Mr. Sceviour, introduced us to William Carlos Williams. When I read The Red Wheelbarrow, a little door blew open in my head. It’s hard to explain, but something happened. I wanted to be a writer from a very early age, but I discovered poetry in high school through Carlos Williams.
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?
First drafts come, usually quickly. Often, if I do not finish a poem on the first pass I will never finish it, as if once I have left the space of origins the garden is sealed. I am teaching myself to write more considered work, to write through ideas, but it still feels like a chore. Intellectual poetry often bores me, and yet so much of my being roots around in cerebral places. I haven’t resolved this tension. A feeling, a place, memory & desire are usually what move me through a poem. I am a ferocious rewriter. I drove Cormorant's poetry editor – and friend - Robyn Sarah, to near fury because, as a habit, I so rarely actually finish a poem to the point where I don’t want to adjust in some way. I almost always want to tinker. Was it Yeats who said when the poem is finished you hear a “click” as if the lid on a wood box was closed? I’m always listening for the “click”, but I don’t hear it so often; this is probably something I will get better at.
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 have only published the one book, and these poems came out of my life over a period of years. I like writing that way, and I like reading poems that emerge out of poet’s lives. Again, I’m working on thinking my way into and out of poetic spaces, but for now it is work and exercise, very little pleasure. Poems usually emerge (for me) from tension and place; and over the course of the sometimes years that I am working on a poem, they will also attract/navigate/encounter memory, discovery, creation. And I get to live inside of them and enjoy the private pleasures of playing in the languages that I create for making sense of my life experiences. It’s quite wonderful, really. I have some ideas for “books”, which I guess means themes to explore poetically, but they remain ideas. It is hard to escape artificiality of emotion in thematic work, I think. At least it seems hard. Ondaatje is one of the rare exceptions – Billy the Kid … a remarkable collection. I’m trying to think of others …
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to read on stages quite a bit, years ago in Vancouver in the 1990s, at the Glass Slipper, the Silvertone, The Grind, Slaughterhouse 5, The Vancouver Press Club. I was part of an informal poets performance group, The Ducktape Platypus Poets Coalition, with Rodney DeCroo and others. We performed in colleges, at the Firehall Theatre … These were years before I was publishing and the live performances provided access to an audience. Poetry is not a private event, although much of its creation may demand solitude. It is ultimately a reaching out with desire to create meaning that can be shared. My interest in poetry shifted away from performance to more private pleasures with language and the page. And this is for the most part how I enjoy poetry myself, in a book, in privacy. Although – having said that, I did see Philip Levine read recently in Ottawa, which was wonderful -- such a large warm personality. But I was already in love with his work. Readings make more sense to me now - both as a writer and as audience - when the audience knows the poet or the work. It's the same with music: I almost never see a performer whose music I don't already like, unless its at a festival or something. I am always to be invited to read, live audiences are always thrilling in a way. But I do think readings are generally more enjoyable when audiences know (and like) the work.
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?
A critical question in my academic life is the relationship between aesthetics and truth. Of course, “aesthetics” is a tricky term. My research at the moment is reconsidering Kant’s critique of judgment in terms of epistemological legitimacy – the role of aesthetics in knowledge, which, surprisingly, is still a little controversial, or it can be depending on your audience. Journalism has long claimed a monopoly on the aesthetics of truth that I think is being eroded in part by contemporary, online cultural engagement – by publics capable of defining, or at least exploring, their own terms of legitimacy as audiences and producers. Poetry manifests as a centre of gravity for me no doubt in part because of the complications of “truth” that interest me, the relationship between truth and language, and the limitations of reason. Sometimes I think that my interest in poetry is all about defending a six year old’s belief in magic, and maybe it is, but there is something urgent at play in the philosophical doubts about modernism, positivity, rational enlightenment. Aesthetics I think offers a way for us to encounter and resist the ways legitimacies of knowledge reflect relationships of domination. I'm slipping into dissertation speak, here – blah – but my point is that aesthetics is one of the ways we can resist whatever limitations might be lurking in cultural assumptions, discourse, ideology, etc. It is exactly in its beautiful, leaping, confounding, rhythmic, metaphorical forms that poetry – like all art – can allow new ways of being human to flourish. We exist through our languages, through our symbolic systems; we become through language, and this is the exciting part of living inside poems, like living inside god, or living inside the sun. Something like that …
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?
Writers make their way with written language -- I’m not sure I would want to impose one role on all the diverse ways people do this. Writing informs almost all aspects of culture – advertising, journalism, cinema, research, entertainment -- few modes of expression do not have some kind of relationship with language. I do respect deeply writers who either wield their craft or use their celebrity to engage with dangerous people and dangerous institutions and who question the legitimacies on which structures of power depend for their sustenance. Artists everywhere continue to pay the price for making dangerous people uncomfortable – censorship, incarceration, harassment, and death. The role I aspire to as a writer is to encourage imagination and self-determination.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I genuinely enjoy working with editors – I appreciate outside eyes and sensibilities. But of course it is essential to be working with an editor who loves your work. And it is also important to understand how different editors can influence poems differently. One editor might draw out in every case the grounded resonance of a poem, another might be more interested in the mysteries at work in a poem. Auden said it well in the idea that what a poet has to offer in terms of criticism is how to write poems like they do: each editor has a sensibility they prefer, will be drawn to, and that they will try to draw from the work --
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When in doubt, delete delete delete. It was advice given to ... I'm not going to remember the name and I can't find it just at the moment, in a published interview with Adrienne Rich or Anne Sexton ...? And they said in the interview they had been given this advice by yet another admired poet. Remarkable advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal?
This is a really important question, although I don't see it as a “moving between”. Genre are like rules for understanding – like rules for a game, a “language game” as Wittgenstein says. They set up terms of engagement. We engage with a scientific report, as reader or writer, differently than a theatrical script, different than a news report, and so on. But these boundaries between terms of engagement are not neutral any more than any other kind of knowledge is neutral. One of my academic interests is in the ways journalism defines itself, how so-called professional standards of journalism in fact reflect particular social orientations. So for example, an interest in objective news reporting, in part, is designed to obscure certain kinds of epistemic short-comings, certain kinds of ambiguities: that language meanings emerge from within and also create relationships, for one; that meanings are inextricably linked to our own integrities, for another; and that a bird's eye view of the world actually reflects an institutional perspective, rather than a human one; etc. The sustenance of the genre of journalism as we have come to know it (largely in the form it took in the early 20th century) depends in part on maintaining clear distinctions between fact and fiction. But this is a distinction that grows ever more murky the more closely we examine what language actually does. My point is that in the maintenance of genres there can be some important political work going on – in the case of journalism, there are all kinds of experiences that through traditional standards of verification are silenced and excluded. There is much interesting cultural work being done currently exploring where one genre boundary bleeds into the next – prose/poetry, fact/fiction, news/entertainment, theatre/journalism, festival/social work, etc.
I suppose the most significant genre tension for me at the moment is between academic writing and poetry, which are like oil and water for me, at least for now. I would like to bring these ways of language closer together, and there are some very talented writers and thinkers who do this (Foucault is a beautiful writer; some writings by Barthes and Deleuze make more sense as poetry than scholarly tract; the essays of Pound, short stories of Borges ...). For the moment, I find the competing demands of the academic/poetic genres – or is it my interest in them? -- somewhat irreconcilable. On the other hand, I have been actively exploring the cross-breeding potentials of poetic forms with journalism -- and O how we need more poetic sensibilities in our news reporting ...
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?
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read – I am so easily inspired by other poets.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Which home? I've had so many – the smell of lakeshore and pine brings me to my family cottage in Muskoka; the smell of certain kinds of baked goods reminds me of a rooming house I lived in above a bakery in East Vancouver; the smell of Lilacs reminds me of a very old house I lived in, also in East Van, the original farmhouse in the area, apparently; a falling down house filled with spiders and moths, a tiny cement backyard, a home of eccentricity, three cats and a dog, a place where great love flourished for a while, and also later a place of great unhappiness; that's what I think about when I smell lilacs.
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?
I love visual art and sculpture – nothing has inspired me of late so much as the permanent exhibition of contemporary Inuit art at the NAG in Ottawa. (It's in the basement, for some reason.) I really envy the immediately appreciable beauty visual artists can make ... to see something new. I get quite excited in art galleries sometimes. When I left the Inuit exhibition, I was so excited and disoriented I thought my car had been stolen. I searched and searched, reported it to the police, reported it to my insurance company, and then some hours later found it where I had parked it. The exhibition was that good!
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Lately I have been reading a lot of Louis Borges. I don't always understand what exactly is going on, but I like what happens inside my head when I read him ...
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are so so many things that I haven't done ... work as a speech writer, for one. I have also been thinking about long-form fiction. And I would love to be a foreign correspondent for a time . There are many many more ...
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?
Being a writer can mean being so many things ...most of the things I have done, I have done through my writing: journalist, activist, policy advocate, administrator, paralegal, academic ... This is more of a preference than a default, but I think I would have loved a life in the theatre – on stage, directing; it is still to my mind one of the most exciting arts to participate in.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Nothing made me write, but I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember. I have tried many things – directing theatre, video art, music (I played piano and saxophone when I was young), drawing, documentary – and it is writing I must always do. I don't really know why ...
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book that I read (fiction) was The Master and the Margarita (Bulgakov), wonderful tale, creepy and wonderful. The last great film was – wait, does The Wire count? I have been enjoying the long-form narratives of television more than film these days – The Wire, Treme, Deadwood, The Hour ... As for films, I loved Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau), such a beautiful film that reminds how powerful cinema can be telling stories of human pain and catharsis without all the pizazz of political intrigue, crime, etc.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I have a cycle of poems I am working through related to my recent move to Chelsea, Quebec, a vast forested suburb in the Gatineau Hills. I thought I would love living in the country, but I don't, really. I miss my friends, I miss the cafes and bars of Montreal, I miss the ready-at-hand culture of the big city, the crowds and energy and constant motion. I miss the sense of being part of something, of being plugged into a cultural, political electricity. It's great for getting work done, and I'm writing my dissertation, so that's all well and good. But it is a hard fit. It is making me sensitive to where the border blurs between civilization and wilderness because where I live is neither city nor country, and both stand out in starker contrast – the roots slowly slowly tearing into the foundation of the house, the infuriating stoicness of trees, car dependence, oil tanks to fill at the side of the house, delicious well water, bears in the compost, clean clean air, no public space to share, and on and on. And, as I said, I have been thinking a little about fiction ...
[Michael Lithgow reads in Ottawa as part of The Plan 99 Reading Series with Donald McGrath at 5pm Saturday, September 29, 2012]
12 or 20 (second series) questions: