Paul Zits received his MA in English from the University of Calgary in 2010 and is the author of Massacre Street (University of Alberta Press, 2013). For the past two years he has served as Writer-in-the-Schools at Queen Elizabeth High School in Calgary, where he has taught Creative Writing to students in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’ve had earlier manuscripts that contained work that went on to do well in magazines and journals, but seemed to lack appeal as book-length projects. Massacre Street contains a strong conceptual foundation which is something that I think was, perhaps, lacking in previous work. Like Massacre Street, my previous manuscript, 1843, was a work of poetic non-fiction, but in this case a (re)working of text found in The Illustrated London News. There are quite a few similarities with regards to how I handled the material I was working with, but as I continue to develop my practice, from project to project, piece by piece, I am also constantly re-evaluating my approach to the art form.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As Kenneth Goldsmith suggests, “[y]ou can do anything that you want in poetry because nobody is fighting for that space. It’s a space that nobody wants. And in that there’s great freedom. Nobody will ever contest poetry.” I think that conceptualizing the work as poetry, or poetic non-fiction, gave me the freedom to approach the project as if nobody was watching. The resulting book is the product of experimentation that would not have happened otherwise.
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 that new projects typically develop quite slowly. I get considerable enjoyment from the research-phase of any project, and tend to immerse myself there. Between projects I tend to spend several months experimenting with techniques and new material, truly without a direction in mind. As John Cage advises: “Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.”
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 definitely start with a “book,” through which I’ll find a general premise that is constantly driving my practise. Because I work with found text, this premise guides what and how I select and organize this material. By playing with the selection process and by simply moving text around, I find that individual pieces evolve & begin building the larger project. It’s a constant movement back-and-forth from the whole to its component.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I wouldn’t say that I enjoy doing readings, but I consider them an important part of the dissemination of my work. That being said, I wouldn’t say that I consider public readings to be either counter to or part of my own creative process. Similar to Cage’s creating and analyzing, performance is another process. The knowledge-sharing & community-building aspects of public readings, however, are really quite exceptional.
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?
One of the primary considerations behind my writing, you might call it a concern, is the idea of reframing. Quite often it seems that concept-based writing that identifies itself as poetry, at the expense of realizing itself, will leave good writing at the door. In cases like these, whether or not it is an issue of poor conceptualizing, the practitioner should always be at great pains to make great selections. By treating letters, words, even full sentences as you would toy building blocks, separating a string of words from their context, language is quite simply able to do more. I’m finding a tremendous amount of enjoyment by simply selecting text, or employing constraints to select text for me, moving text around – allowing words and discourses to collide with one another.
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 firmly believe that the role of the writer is dual: that of critic and innovator. The role of the writer is to question. His or her role is to question but also to suggest at and demonstrate innovation. Whether questioning larger cultural narratives, or questioning narrative itself, the writer is always performing this dual role.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t know that working with an outside editor should be difficult, but it should be considered essential. Any conversation has the ability to yield new insights and a writer should know how best to negotiate & benefit from these dialogues. But it is also crucial that an editor fully appreciate the fundamental concerns of the work. It is important that both parties are disciplined.
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 fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find that a move from poetry to fiction has been a very natural one. I think that movement in any direction would benefit a writer’s craft, but that the move from poetry to fiction holds greater potential rewards for the prose-writer. My most successful moments in writing fiction have always come when the language has taken-on a particularly poetic character.
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?
When I do manage a routine, I tend to take frequent reading-breaks as a reward for managing to write something of some significance. Of some significance to me. I find frequent breaks refreshing & keep my mind properly spread-open.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing stalls I cut it up. Otherwise, I tend to revisit authors and titles that have either had a significant impact on my practice, The Third Mind (William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin) for example, or work whose approach might function as a kind of springboard. A few names that come to mind, in reverse-alphabetical order, would be Steven Zultanski, Rachel Zolf, Darren Wershler-Henry, Sina Queyras, bp nichol, Kenneth Goldsmith, Kevin Davies, Christian Bök, Gregory Betts, derek beaulieu.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of juniper bushes.
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?
Influences seem to come from a variety of places and a variety of places at once. I would certainly identify History, in all of its manifestations, as a source of material. The visual arts, which are a significant part of my own background, also seem to play an important role in my work, the principles of collage & montage being two notable examples. I do believe, though, that Conceptual Art carries with it some of the most generative potential for the writer.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In addition to the partial list provided in question 12, I would identify, in alphabetical order, Kathy Acker, Louis Aragon, John Ashbery, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Roberto Bolaño, Italo Calvino, Jean Genet, Alfred Jarry, Chris Kraus, Robert Kroetsch, Mina Loy, George Perec & Alain Robbe-Grillet. I seem to gravitate quite easily to modernist and late-modernist texts, the nouveau roman and Oulipian works.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to take my wife someplace extraordinary for a honeymoon.
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 have previously studied, at one time, Fine Arts, at another, Anthropology. I suspect that were I not doing what I’m doing, I would either be a printmaker or an archaeologist.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was really a question of timing, I suppose. While studying at MacEwan University in Edmonton I was introduced to work being done in the English Department at the University of Calgary and made the decision to begin my creative-writing studies there. The experience was significant enough to keep me on this path.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Hebdomeros. Giorgio de Chirico (Exact Change, 1992).
Anti-Christ. Lars von Trier, Director (2009).
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently finishing a new project entitled This is Not a P_. The collage-work in this manuscript is meant to reassert what René Magritte had claimed as the “ascendency of poetry over painting.” This is Not a P_., which refers to Magritte’s La trahison des images, turns objects into text, turns the viewer into a reader, offering to him or her freedom to create by salvaging pieces from the collage-works to which they refer.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;