Matrix Magazine Litpop awards and for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. He has been featured in Juice, the University of Winnipeg’s creative writing literary journal, five times, and is a long-time contributor to Winnipeg’s cultural scene. Recently, he completed a Master's degree in creative literature at the University of Manitoba. Sonar (Turnstone Press, 2012) is his first full-length collection of poetry.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
At one level, my response is similar to any writer who has been ambitiously scribbling for a long time, in my case since my youth and adolescence, and that is that nothing has changed in my dedication toward writing, I have simply had a formalized experience of letting my little book go out into the broader world. It has been a major confidence-booster, in that I feel the book is a chunk of my reality, even though the text is more complexly related to me, and that now a new state of reality exists for me, as if the written word were made performative that someone announced to the few people paying attention to my life outside of family and friends. But as for any other profound changes, I feel that the book constitutes a good start in the formal recognition it gave—I feel I still have so much more to learn, and perhaps the book is a little foundation to step off of really. Publication has over-all perhaps, to pick up an implicit point from the beginning of this statement, confirmed that I am serious about literature, and other people can see it now, assuming they don't think I am a hack of any sort; the published book becomes like a perverse extra limb, adding more of you to reality. On a technical note, Sonar, the book of subject here, is my first full-length book, but I did publish a chapbook back in 2009, entitled Arguments for a Chapbook. It had a launch at Platform gallery in Winnipeg and was a very exciting event—but it lacked the almost gaudy formality of a full-length book. My life feels, over-all, slightly relieved that I can do something literary with it, as I was worried that all those tattered pages of previous scribbles were no more than surrender flags lain on the insufficiently sound foundation of my youth bedroom scenes of smashed existence. But for the biographical sensibility this book had and that its awards suggest, to refer of turning a page, it felt like an apprenticeship has somewhat ended and that all of that un recognized writing does indeed add up.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry did not speak to me very powerfully until I had a random (for the moment) encounter with the collected poems of Jim Carroll in a book store in Winnipeg when I was about 15, and it shocked me
with these Rimbaudian visions of a youth in flux that seemed to parallel my own; I had actually never identified with language as purely as that, and it seemed an aesthetic code with some hints of wisdom in the visionary distilling of his mind, just writing with daring but already haunted by problems. I was so naive about philosophy and issues of intellectualism that these referents must have seemed a Coles Notes of the transcendental signified, from where I now write most of the time. Language began to leave the world of things and enter a phase that seemed mysterious and seemingly set in another world. Poetry was mysterious, and of course compact; it epiphanized once you began to figure it out, and for some reason, my brain just locked onto it. The only thing comparable was when I fell in love with Mozart's music, but I obviously didn't have the ability to really compare to a musical genius, where as I may have been able to live in constant homage with the comparably more accessible poetry of Jim Carroll, which, for a while made me type cast as a fake idiosyncratic poet for a while in endless imitation and homage. I suppose that narrative was intrusive whereas poetry was like a personal physics equation (writers and poets perhaps see language as relatively similar to Einstein in visionary conceit, of trying to find a perfect all-inclusive line that must be a formula and yet not be formulaic) of distorted beauty that you could secretly turn to. But I love poetry over fiction perhaps because my life always seems fragmented to my perception. It seems now that I really came to poetry because it seemed difficult, and this was apparent long before I wrote anything I would not be ashamed of; as an amazing writer friend of mine, Colin Smith, pointed out, there is an unending challenge in poetry and that there is nothing like it, at least to its dedicated practitioners; no matter how good you get there is always a struggle at some level.
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, I would have to immediately go into a literal version of confessional poetry and say that I was not the most organized of writers prior especially to taking a creative writing course at the University of Winnipeg under the fine teaching of Catherine Hunter that I began to revise more consciously, but I have had quite a few projects of considerable varying degrees of ambition and delusional grandiosity. For Sonar, which was an adaptation of my master's thesis, it built up over a year at least, and was over six hundred pages by the time I was “done” with it. Dennis Cooley, who masterfully served as an editor of saintly patience for my thesis, has a comic moment in his book Bloody Jack where his editor comes in and takes the endlessly multiplying pages away from him before they swelter and take over the whole world like the nightmare we might imagine for a bureaucrat, although Dennis was the complete opposite of such an identity with his, at times, ingeniously playful and inventive language. Part of the reason for this accumulation for me is that I write a great deal, born in part from dedication and temperament, and that poetry is one of the few things that comes really easily for me and I seem to have an immunity to writer's block for the most part. Yet, I am starting to think that I am at times going in circles with my writing and that I need a new period of re thinking how the world makes sense to me, and this requires, likely, copious notes. Perhaps I have also been conditioned by both school (the in-class note taking, not essay writing necessarily) and poetry readings to have an instinct for getting something to write about, something that suggests I can locate the pith for a poem, and that once I get started, the writing comes usually with a good push past an initial phase. Sometimes, the writing is hiding behind a monument for writer's block and you simply have to push yourself to find it, although, I admit that most of the actually decent writing I do is either the result of refinement or genuine inspiration. I am guilty of lazy writing however, and also of being negligent to what I have written, because I demand of myself that I am as inventive as possible (I hesitate for philosophic reasons using the term “creative,” at least here) and that I don't repeat myself, but I also fear seeing the possibility of mediocre writing; one day, I hope to go through all of my writing and solve my personal mystery as to whether I am being inventive or merely re-experiencing the same ideas as defamiliarized, or half-forgotten.
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?
Often I task myself, especially while upon going away from home to write, I will attempt to evoke an intensely defamiliarized description of something that I can literally see, or, an intense figurative phrase that will act as a kind of vector for my writing to circle around or commence with; but often I bring numerous books of poetry with me and read them in magpie fashion, i.e. looking at little flashes of brilliance that then stirs up my own sense of resonance, and that is really a key word for what I do. Despite starting with something as universal seeming as an image, the subtle ways of interplay, or intertextuality, that can often be directionless but potently suggestive, also occur—so I guess I do not believe in valuing vacuums so long as they have windows!? Once I have a start, it usually finds connections to everything I was thinking over the course of the day, and usually an idea I knew I wanted to record. I would cite Robert Kroetsch who said that he didn't realize right away that his long poems were all interconnected in surprising ways. And that is coming from a very astute and aware individual, who couldn't be expected to know the form before it occurs in writing: imagine actually having an omniscience; I wonder if the preferred genre would be poetry to gain relief from the burden of prosaic awareness and heavy prose! Conversely, I can often write in a rhzisomatic way—but language is such a loaded and haunted thing, that associations in the immediate are of a slightly different nature once you step back upon a later reading, when sometimes you lose the immediate thought-line of inspiration written in the heat of that past moment. Perhaps haunted is the exact wrong word—it is a living presence that “haunts” really, and it is me who feels like a ghost compared to the words when they really come, but the feeling of fear approaches when you wonder if the inspiration will come back to you to give you mysterious power: where was I figuratively when I wrote that? Surely a poltergeist muse moved my hand. But at this point, I have also several ideas that I will mention later in this interview in terms of subjects, but I am also trying to tie my ideas and plans together so that everything is building on everything else. I have also reached towards a greater honesty with myself regarding the reality that I can diffuse the quality of what I write if I engage in too many writing projects. But, I suppose I like to imagine that I just began writing, and that I can forget a history of slogging away, with miles to go before I reached poetry, though I am a harsh critic of myself and perhaps reached it but not at the level I expected.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am inwardly a creature of mood and brood, and seek attention during heightened comic moments in which I enjoy the brief spotlight of poetic community that occurs at the poetry readings of non- competitive natures; then, in the shadows, I hunt with embarrassing seriousness for the language that moves me, this being the brooding side. But yes, I feel that a reading is a very important component to the life of a writer, and a poet, because it flaunts a kind of survival in a potentially tortuous vacuum, a badge of sorts almost, or something that suggests a way of capturing experience in which you were the sole witness that no one else could have seen, with your blistering idiosyncrasy. I have hosted numerous readings also, and I would say it makes the writing feel more real somehow, by adding a dimension of theatre as one aspect. Oddly enough, despite being naturally and now unconsciously loud, that I am not a slam poet (not to suggest that all slam poets have this as a prerequisite, but it can be refined into charisma with some zen and guru grace) and I have been painfully aware of the schism this creates when I have read at slam shows--I think there are some marvellous people doing this, at times, rap-influenced form exceedingly well and have respect for it, but sometimes I think the poem can belong in a kind of privacy, an intimate revelation that has been made into a verbal bonsai tree of implications all reaching out to mysterious privacy, although this creates a space that can be recognized from without. I do not want to suggest a fully modernist indulgence in only deciding that the world is secondary and that one's interests are primary which fully alleviates the sense of direct community that is become so tenuous in our technological world. I do feel, however, with my involvement with hosting readings that a diversely attended poetry reading, that is, one that is composed of unique thinkers and people at varying degrees of readiness in the act of sharing, can be a greatly engaging and life-enhancing event, and is necessary for poets. I say this because of the way isolation can become dream-like, and a line from Jim Carroll “noiselessly, the world has begun to defect” could be a sign post for this, and that one can be cured of a kind of delusional worry, that other people struggle, that we feel strange possibilities even in dissonance; a poetry reading should almost complicate reality, in that performativity and rhetoric collide and form an energy for poetry—but the definition of what poetry is could vary with each possible reader if that is possible. While it may not always be the case, those who sacrifice themselves on stage are heroic if you perhaps stretch the term slightly, or not, in a world of anti-heroism they seem just right.
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 have an agenda when I write, and my poetics are a very crowded place; as with the poet Carl Solomon, I really feel every poem should have a conscious inventive idea not merely for investigation but for justification, and I suppose that puts me in the most pompous camp available, in that I don't like to just play with words (or, metaphorically, I am playing a game like chess and not checkers) as it can, at its worst, seem like the poem has no artistic integrity and is just there, with an awkward hello, which can be charming, but perhaps not what you would exclusively want to do if you take writing seriously to the ridiculous extent I do. I think literature is facing a possible crisis analogous to what literary Modernism may have faced with the advent of new ways of seeing the world, and in particular cinema (as visual art may have helped poetry out more than been competitive with it) where as now, a love of language can be an alienating thing to have lodged in one's being; there could be major shifts in sensibility that type casts literature, so to speak, making it seem less vibrant than the world of things, of movies that elaborately blow things up, and random objects of mild creativity in gift shops. I think the idea of difference is key, and that writers who are daring to engage postmodernity in a serious critical way are doing something of great importance, and I think the idea of seriousness is now an anathema in our culture. How do we get people to think about the unpleasant things in the world in a constructive way? I was reading a short passage about Wittgenstein who was observed to have had good thoughts rather than just clever ones. I like to think that a poem acts as, yes, sometimes a form of virtuosity, but not necessarily in an obvious way, and that its communicative effect is to be something like a form of wisdom that you can use to open your mind up or something incredibly pithy that sharpens your mind, even simultaneously. Of course, any guru would say that, but the poem must be so carefully chosen that what it lacks is as important as what it chooses to engage explicitly. Currently, I am writing about Winnipeg, madness and trying to think about the environment. These are the main things, and I am plotting to connect all of them and they are all vital to me; madness is what I am exploring for my PhD and I am looking into radical art as a way of gauging this in part, and I am exploring both the experiential aspects of those afflicted with madness and looking to convert its mind states into exploratory realms beyond psychoanalysis, along with working in theatre some of the theoretical ideas of Augusto Boal who wrote the Theatre of the Oppressed, whom I have been modifying for people with mental illness to be able to act out and re-represent their experiences.
I also think civilization has become insatiable, and yet that we are having a debasement of ideas that do not match the frontier of exhausting the planet of its resources; we are not exploring ourselves and we are in a need of a new enlightenment as a species that thinks it has dominated the planet without thinking critically about what this means. For me, the issue of Global Warming is a concern that will subsume all sorts of other problems, and the question is; why do we not seem to care enough? I have some explanations, but I am not sure if they would be met with sympathy in the angry future. But my poetry tries to take on problems, as I find that a far more engaging reason to write, though that is not mutually exclusive with playing with language, which I do not mean to debase, as it can make people conscious just as effectively: I also try hard to have both beauty and humour in what I write, and that is apparent in my book, Sonar and in Arguments for a Chapbook.
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 this is a huge question and that it has to vary, as there need to be a great deal of different roles writers can have to make the position a meaningful one, but here we need to make distinctions in the meaning of the word “culture” particularly the popular version and then one that is removed from entertainment in its most superficial sense and is a testing site for art to attempt to matter in a world dominated by science, or so it seems to me. Locally, here in Canada we have literary figures but they can seem celebrities, or they exist in localities, but I think we have great writers and it saddens me that they do not get as much attention as they deserve (assuming they all want it). The poet I think should be a figure or person who demonstrates an interest in other people but also is willing to shatter illusions in a way that is attentive the cracks caused by their own iconoclasm, so that they become similar to Rimbaud's disorientations, and they are not simply a liar or articulate euphemist, but someone willing to indulge in asking questions even philosophy would, in its academic contexts at least, not take seriously. I do not think the poet should hide away, but I also disagree with the model as a rhetorician who merely pleases, and I think a critical faculty is important and, while it does not have to be a didactic stance, I think we need to say things that are not easy to realize and that remind us that our language is something we need to recognize as a miracle—what is thought, where does it come from? It seems to me that a writer's defamiliarization is to remind us that language is a miracle and that we need to prevent it being a mere habit, to awaken language and enable the public to better explore their consciousness, and to see what is possible in language. I know that may sound pompous, but I think that it does not have to be, in that sometimes a poem of great simplicity and not a great deal of ambition can still achieve an awakening for a reader. There is also the question of other audiences, and I would also have to suggest a somewhat different role for those who are already converts, so to speak. I think we need, in that context, to challenge each other but also to be passionate towards each other, re-confirming our passion and purpose; it is not always easy to be a writer, and it is possible that our at-times private visions would be adversely affected if we became famous, but being totally ignored can also be damaging. Many of my friends in the writing community in Winnipeg are finding ways of re-thinking their roles, and I would say that most poets have an nuanced or idiosyncratic vision of what their role is, and at poetry readings you can sense this in the delivery of their reading and the comments they make surrounding it. If the novel was designed to show how others lived, it is perhaps poetry's to remind us how people would like to think; the writer's role can also perhaps combine these and say the way we should live.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I would say both—I tend to really need an editor probably more than most writers, as I often excessively complicate a great deal, and lose touch with what is implied by a certain statement, and needless to say, the implications of a text as a totality. I have been very lucky, however, to have worked with some fine editors, beginning with a dear friend of mine, named Mary-Anne who patiently sat through the scribbling implications of what I was trying to say. But, I think the main reason I need an editor is because I tend to burrow my way into what I am writing, and as a result, I need to have it re-familiarized. It is the usual phenomenon of stepping outside of what you have written. The editor can seem like a representative of the objective world, and as I tend to be highly subjective when I write, this makes a form of translation possible, especially as I have an obsession with ideas, and they can be difficult to contextualize at times. I should probably try and marry an editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Paul Celan: “there are still songs to sing beyond mankind.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving out of poetry has been the most difficult problem for me through-out my academic career, especially since late adolescence, and while I have appreciation for the essay, I am not great at actually writing them due to the elliptical nature of my thought, and the improvisational/ impressionist nature of how I go about developing an idea. Poetic prose might seem an ideal compromise, but I am also obsessed with developing ideas and sometimes colourful language can sacrifice originality, if such a thing is possible (I do not mean total originality, but rather perhaps a mythical synonym for innovation or crafted synthesis). I think the appeal of the connection between poetry and critical prose can be an ideal dialectic in that the latter especially can really frame the former, and not in a way limited to narrative, but something that could show the multifaceted sense of good writing; and further, we could also see the honest and accurate conditions in the making of a poem, which get distorted by the natural occurrence of myth-making. A good example is Howl, by Allen Ginsberg. He wrote some slightly disparaging things about Howl when he was thinking about it, and yet this poem has become so representative of the ineffable and yet seems like a kind of monument that has some graffiti on it intended by the author. I find when I write an essay about a book I liked, it turns seemingly beyond my control into an homage, and some of my disciplined critical thinking goes out to lunch for a bit. The appeal of moving like this is perhaps the hope that you can find some new liminal space that will confuse genres in a profound way, and I think poetry can actually, in just being unpacked, yield narrative and ideas that could be framed with an essay. This unpacking is, in itself, enough to constitute a narrative of ideas—that is the way a poem becomes an essay is a story in itself, and self-conscious language is, I think, something we need to be aware of as critics, as we cannot have a neutral language despite the claims of political correctness, and any attempt to do so could only be taken up by a new Gertrude Stein of amazing technique.
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?
It usually begins with facing what is most immediately due; previously I try to do my reading in the day, and then write into the night, because as a night owl, connections occur later, and I can assimilate them then. As of late, I just write whenever I can; I save my poetry now just around bed time, just to write what has been gestating in my brain, even somewhat unconsciously. But sometimes the writing just gets invented while there.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I would say that, because of my circumstances of mainly being in school, I am often forced to write even when I lack inspiration. I do find, however, that there is inspiration that is beneath the surface, and that breaking the ideal scenario we might imagine as perfect writing conditions, will reveal that good writing is just slightly dormant within us, just not obviously apparent. But, I usually can rely on looking at the outside world to refresh my brain. I recall that a great writer, Tolstoy, I think, said he only went out to get a fresh feeling for being alone. I am not that hermetic, but more often, I am finding that a walk through a beautiful area can give me a freshness that re enhances defamiliarization in my writing; by restoring the image, the writing can be re-descriptive, much as Kerouac wrote of with regards to mental focus and how an eidetic recall can be useful for one's writing, how the symbol or object is not diffused, but resists and yet absorbs the writing about it. I find also that music can push me further in writing poetry, although I have found that my academic writing requires more focus and, as all art moves towards the condition of music, academic writing for me increasingly must refuse any drift towards the artistic sensibility, like some bad kids you shouldn't associate with at school who would dance to punk. But I can also always turn to any of a number of great writers, and do a homage of their work until I am able to restore a vividness to my writing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Too many things remind me of home. One day I hope to have a Proustian event of a memory trigger when I least expect it, and as I have moved more in the last ten or so years than the previous twenty, I may have smelled a scent of decadence regarding the lovely innocence I experienced growing up in Wolseley, a hippie-like utopia in Winnipeg garnished with big elm trees and more tolerance and well-being than almost any place I have ever seen. In my new home, I have noted, however, a smell not unlike one from my Grandmother's house, and it was like an extension of home, and a comfort zone deep into prairie disappearance, as she lived in Saskatoon before her passing. Scent is seemingly as mystical as music, but does not get the same credit because it is like displaced taste from the tongue, and yet, it is invisible, and moves like imaginary clouds—and I have even, as anthropology might explain, used smell as an omen, though not utterly decisive, to contribute as a seal on my choice of my current home with reference to my Grandmother's example. I live in Osborne village, and it is hard to conceive a smell to represent it because it is so dynamic and alive—perhaps the latest perfume and the smell of a bohemian artist's paint, mixed street kid sweat and squeegy water.
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 think so, but all these things are mostly unconsciously connected—I have often felt jealousy towards artists who make objects, and I have tried in my writing to imagine dimension as well as dream up art objects. Music is something I find enticing, and I often do my wildest writing while listening to it, finding its rhythms create more immediate decisions in what I write, I think. But I am also looking forward to engaging visual art more in my degree, as there is a rich correlation in my area of Modernism.
I also try to read broadly, and that includes subjects I am hopelessly lost in, like physics and to some extent philosophy, and I do this to seek ideas and also to look for concepts of writing, as I took up the kind of writing that attempts to make the poem into many forms, as science experiment, or as dialogue or script, and this, to me, is a useful way to escape any sense of narrow enclosure like the true prairie poet that I would like to think I am, although the urban prairie poet seems a less addressed subject.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My father is probably the major one in one sense; coming out of his shadow--thick as a curtain--was a great challenge, even though we do different kinds of writing and I have nowhere near his accomplishments. I hope to continue learning from him as long as I can. I would say the writings of Allen Ginsberg and his entire career are and were a huge influence because of both his subject matter and the kind of unabashed person and poet he was; he really tackled taboos in an amazing way. James Joyce's works have also been a huge impact, especially Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses; his poetic prose and appropriation of an aesthetic system from Catholicism is I think an ingenious ploy, and I was thinking of writing an essay called “Cross Pollination: Joyce and the Aesthetics of Christian Symbols.” But terrible puns aside, I am also in the process of discovering writers to coincide with my PhD program; I am anticipating that Wittgenstein will be a new obsession for me, as his ideas about language are amazing in their clarity, and I hope I can fall in love with a new writer I have not read as soon as possible. I would also have to say that writing is my work, and yet I love it and yet the two seem to go together quite well.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Conquer my fears; face life in a complete sense—rather than be an editor of the superfluous, I need to live up to my own idealism in a poetic sense. I would like to find a job I love that gives me meaning, and I am hoping it is in teaching.
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 would love to have been a composer, and on occasion wished I had stuck with piano, as I wrote some terribly unsophisticated compositions when I started off, but in the realm of sheer fantasy, I am sure I wished I were a reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci. But I really can say that writing has permeated me to such an extent, that I could almost say I cannot imagine another identity.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Total inability! I really lost touch with my jack-of-select-trades identity and became a full time writer. I was told as a young person by many people that I would make a great politician, and I wish that I had been an actor to acquire such a possibility, although there are some politicians I have admired, as diverse as Jack Layton and Bill Clinton (I am quoting that to not give a Sarah Palin-type political response). My father is also a writer of course, and my sister and I were given a great education at home that challenged the one being forged in school, and I was so in awe of books as a child that I instinctively knew it was what I wanted to do. But, as with question above, I hope to discover ability in things I never assumed I would have, and hope that this helps extend my identity, and hopefully my writing, if writing what you know or have experienced is true (which I think it is, but sometimes an ambitious guess can yield interesting things).
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I really enjoyed a book of poetry called If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova. It is rare that I am utterly consumed by a work of poetry as I have been by her. Beautiful and thoughtful writing.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on an urban prairie long poem and I will be submitting it to Turnstone Press, who mercifully published Sonar. I also have a novel I am slowly building up which I want to make into a concept novel. That is all I can tell you, as it must be under a top-secret seal. Needless to say, I am working on my PhD work as my main concern, but I assume the question is more in reference to creative pursuits.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;