Nyla Matuk was born in Winnipeg and spent her childhood in Ottawa. She earned an M.A. in English from McGill University where she won the Lionel Shapiro Prize for Creative Writing. Her poems have appeared recently in Maisonneuve, The Walrus, Canadian Notes and Queries, ARC Poetry, the Literary Review of Canada, and other places. Her chapbook, Oneiric, was published in 2009 by Frog Hollow Press, and her first full-length collection of poetry, Sumptuary Laws, is published this year with Signal Editions / Véhicule Press.
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 was some justification that this ‘poetry’ thing wasn’t just ‘all in my head.’ It was enough encouragement to write more. That did change my life. About the differences between the chapbook and this book: I think Sumptuary Laws is preoccupied with worldliness; Oneiric, the chapbook, had at its root the need to record dream-like, surreal sub-consciousness in language. Sumptuary Laws seems more conscious, more about tactility and presence and longing for real things while also carrying a romantic dispensation (maybe that’s the same thing). About a dozen of the poems from the chapbook have been incorporated into Sumptuary Laws, however.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I didn’t. I started out at 21 writing short fiction. The first short story I wrote won the Lionel Shapiro Prize at McGill University. After that, I didn’t write creatively for a decade. When I picked it up again, I managed to publish a few stories in Canadian literary journals, but writing fiction has been, for me, like pulling teeth. I just hate doing it. I never mastered how to lie, how to get characters from A to B. When I tried poetry later, it was as if I had found myself—I’m sorry, that’s so cliché—but I was living in a delusion for years, thinking I was a fiction writer. I guess there was a reason I memorized so much T.S. Eliot in high school and Edward Lear as a child. I also enjoy writing essays, and hope to develop some of the work I contributed to Ryeberg Curated Video into more substantial pieces. It’s possible, if I ever have more time, that I would try fiction again.
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?
I find sometimes a poem comes out close to something finished, with only a few weeks of editing, and other times I will work on something for 6 months or a year, and end up throwing it out. I’ll finally accept it goes nowhere, and can’t. On occasion, I will paste together disparate lines from different poems into something new. I don’t keep notes.
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 don’t work on a book project from the beginning. I found when I had a critical mass of poems for Sumptuary Laws, I looked at them, their senses and sounds, and I had lots of ideas swirling around in my head. Then, the organizing metaphor of sumptuary laws came to me, and the book was established as an entity into which I kept adding more material. Poems often begin as something like a “voice” or a series of phrases whose sense is not yet defined, but whose rhythm of phrase, and feeling, are there. Sometimes they begin via images, and ideas about what the image is actively “doing” or what I imagine they are doing.
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 mind them; what I don’t like is reading the same material repeatedly because I start to feel something like “familiarity breeds contempt.” I get sick of my own voice reading the same thing, so over time I change the selection of poems.
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 haven’t theorized my own work—though I do love reading literary theory—because I don’t want to self-editorialize. Over time, I’ve come to understand a certain way in which my consciousness gets onto the page and I don’t think the traditional fault line between experimental and lyric forms is that pronounced in my work. I rely as much on experiment in concept and sound as I do in bringing about a point of view, a thought, a feeling in a more universally understood way using metaphor. That fault line is maybe still a “current question,” as it were, but I haven’t spent much time pondering these things. I sometimes think “experimental” is a way of continuing to sit on a margin that these poets imagine to be a status akin to being an outsider but might just be pretentious or a need to be “different” for fear of being engulfed in convention. But with poetry, the words on the page are what make you look conventional or different; they make you stand out or blend in. Not an explicitly declared school of thought, category, or community.
As for what I might be trying to answer—I might just be exploring an aesthetic form of my own desires, anxieties, observations and memories. (Sorry, that is very general). I have also thought of poetry as a private language that works to win others over. Sometimes I think poets are people who were able to recruit baby talk into increasingly sophisticated baby talk.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in the larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the poet functions the way Freudian psychoanalysis once functioned. Freud has now been out of favour a long time, but his work filled something in the culture (whether you buy into, or not, the theory of Freud’s 3 drives) that we have now lost and that possibly poetry can or is, or always was, offering us. That is, a way out of capitalism’s endless myth of progress, of means-end rationality, of assumptions of “more,” or continued growth, or more nefariously, the recent ‘positive thinking’ movements that see those with cancer, for example, as either winners or losers of a battle. I am trying to say, I guess, that a form of subconscious, intimate noticing is offered up, with poetry. The larger culture, it seems to me, is concerned now with the image, the instant response, the sardonic tweet, the sound or news bite, the status update and its attendant narcissistic after-effects. Maybe poetry, by asking us to listen to language again, carefully, uncovers something buried? There is a generosity to both writing it and reading it—the time required. The attentiveness and the mindfulness. That is valuable too, always has been. There is something else that appeals to me, and I think it is also a role of poets—I believe Erin Mouré once called writing poetry “a way of being alone,” and it is very much that in a world of large conventions, movements, and communal thinking. Not that those things aren’t valuable too.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s essential and I haven’t had any difficulties. My current editor, Carmine Starnino, was a tremendous source of good aesthetic judgment. I think of him as the Veuve Cliquot of poetry editors—I’ve been very fortunate to cross his path. In writing, I’ve always invited a second or third set of eyes on the work. We can’t see the backs of our own heads…and you can’t make all your decisions, in life or in poetry, alone. In particular with regard to the assembly of a book, I think an editor is very important.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Don’t take yourself too seriously.” But my caveat for that would be, ‘do take yourself seriously when you make a decision on what to be serious about.’ I think one reason I didn’t get to writing poetry until much later than many poets I know, was that I didn’t take myself seriously. On the other hand, I really don’t think taking myself seriously was something I needed to do at age 24—too much going on at that age.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to journalism)? What do you see as the appeal?
I am on an indefinite hiatus from trying to write fiction, but I do find there is an affinity between poetry and the personal essay because of the accessibility to a certain fluidity of ideas, a way of organizing experience at will or according to a certain overriding feeling or understanding. The poetry is more difficult because transitions between ideas are not as easily executed. And with poetry’s additional permissibility around what TS Eliot called the “violent yoking together” of metaphor, I think it’s more difficult to strike the right chord, make the correct aesthetic judgment. To make readers care seems the most important thing regardless of genre, however. But I move easily between essays and poetry, and journalistic writing.
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?
Writing is not full-time work for me and I try to snatch time, when I’m inspired, on the weekend and evenings. Unlike any other work I do, writing almost always works better for me very late at night. I work 9 to 5 at my day job. I’m likely to become more disciplined with a writing schedule once I have narrowed down a new project.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
That’s tough. Sometimes it’s just a period of time where I immerse myself in reading poetry; it’s as if I’m looking for the range of what’s possible to say. Sometimes I look at paintings and photos I’ve taken, or watch films; and sometimes I’m just stuck, and worried I will never write another word again. The thing about creative writing is that there is no guarantee, I don’t think, that your next work will be an improvement over the last. It seems we just have to be prepared to say we will get “something different.” Sometimes inspiration might come out of the blue while reading a newspaper article.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
It might be 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?
It was during an unemployed summer, when I went to see art films quite regularly at the Cinemathèque Ontario, that the idea for Oneiric came. I had written some poems in the surreal mode, already, and something about the exposure to moving images, in the dark, and the spark of wordplay, combined to encourage more material for that chapbook than anything else. I am always inspired to write when looking at paintings as well—Oneiric had a poem for Edvard Munch; Sumptuary Laws has a poem about Raoul Dufy’s paintings. As for music—I’ve always been a great fan of arena rock, 1970s classic rock. It’s possible those dovetailing orchestrations influence my language, but I’m not consciously using them.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are so many, it’s hard to make a definitive list here. It was a watershed for me to read W.G. Sebald in Granta magazine, when he was first published in English and before any of the books appeared in English, which I then devoured when they became available. The meditative style, the beauty of the almost doomed rumination, and Sebald’s constant noticing, like a poet, seem to hold such opposing and promising landscapes. In fiction, Nabokov started my inspiration to write stories—his memoir, Speak, Memory and his short stories in particular. In poetry, I discovered Wallace Stevens late, and he too was a great influence. Elizabeth Bishop; Frank O’Hara; many contemporary American, U.K. and Canadian poets.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to go live in some cities I’m curious about, say for a year (or, longer if there were reasons to stay): New York, London, Berlin, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome. I have visited these places but would love to live in them. There are others…maybe a small town in the south west of France. La Rochefoucauld? Because I like the sound of that.
And, I think I would like to visit a really exotic geography, like Bora Bora, where the sand is purple. In terms of poetry: I want to write a long, maybe even book-length poem. I’d also like to have published the children’s book manuscript I wrote several years ago, which is a long poem.
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 might have pursued acting, because I did a lot of that before university. I am not so sure I would do that now. Also some form of professional dance because I studied dance for many years. I would also have liked to be a medical illustrator, because I find anatomy fascinating. Or an art historian, a professor of art history. It’s an area I regret I didn’t pursue.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have always arranged the world first and foremost with language—it was a central experience for the following reasons. Growing up, I spoke English at home but I was at a French school all day so I am fluent in French. My parents’ mother tongues are Urdu (my mother) and Arabic (my father) and although they spoke English to each other, it was a strange English. I overheard them speaking these languages and maybe picked up on sounds and imagined what the words meant. For a time I understood Urdu. I didn’t speak it, however. And there is something to all of that, that must have made me want to write. Maybe it was an instinct to create my own “language” from the ruins and fragments I picked up, as I was learning how to communicate in two languages (English and French) at once. And to understand but not speak seems a strange but essential education for a writer—to be constrained from uttering but to be exposed to incoming sounds, words, and so on. Maybe it makes you a particular type of listener? Also, I think my father reading to me every night and my summers spent with my nose in books as a child, were great influences. I read a lot. I sub-vocalize as I read.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve just finished D. Nurkse’s latest collection of poems, A Night in Brooklyn, which has a magnificent tone of melancholy—I am not sure how he does it, but it’s brilliant. And a few months ago watched Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse.” Also great.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m writing some poems at a slow rate, but nothing really concrete has materialized for a new book. I am still processing Sumptuary Laws….heftier than I had expected.
12 or 20 (second series) series;