Wednesday, July 02, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with David James Brock

David James Brock is a playwright, poet and librettist whose plays and operas have been performed in cities across Canada, the US, and the UK. His first collection of poetry, Everyone is CO2, was recently released by Wolsak & Wynn. He is also co-creator of Breath Cycle, an opera developed for singers with cystic fibrosis through Scottish Opera which was recently nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in London.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Everyone is CO2 is my first full length collection, but I’ve been lucky to have two chapbooks and a number of plays and operas produced. The process of writing this book was a longer term deal—more anticipation, more worry, more excitement. It differs from plays and opera in that there’s a different, slower sort of climax that either hasn’t happened yet or it happened so subtly, I’ve already missed it.

But I don’t feel different—I don’t mean to be Johnny Cool in saying this. I’ll count on my close friends to let me know if this book has changed me and then whether or not that change is good or bad.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to playwriting first, then fiction, then opera—all the while I was reading poems, dabbling with writing them. They were terrible because I wasn’t working at them. Around 2006, I realized all my friends were poets. Really good poets. The kind that when I read their work, it inspired me to want to be better at poetry, to be a part of that club.

I can remember a lot of very late nights at bars with a posse of writers working on MFAs in creative writing: Jeff Latosik, Sandy Pool, Jake Mooney, Aisha Sasha John, Leigh Nash, Andrew Faulkner, Jaime Forsythe…and then these human beings release these fantastic poetry books (a couple of the prodigies put out two). Proximity was a good motivator.

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 write fast. I write with a target in mind (launch date, opening night, commission deadline)…I’m not a huge note taker, which feels like a massive obstacle to ever writing a novel. A lot of my work depends on collaboration, so I’ve had to become pretty efficient with first drafts—being confident in taking chances and surrounding myself with collaborators who trust me.
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 didn’t begin writing poetry with a book in mind. When I started putting together the poems in Everyone is CO2 to see if I had enough for a manuscript, I was pretty surprised to see that I had written close to 100 poems (the final manuscript is 34 individual pieces).

Most poems start with a story, either one I want to tell or one that has inspired me. The poem in my collection ‘Mercury’ arose from a story I heard in Glasgow at a 19th century music hall called the Britannia Panopticon, famous being the home of Stan Laurel’s first public performance. The building’s curator relayed a story that pregnant women would sometimes drink mercury to deform their babies, allowing them to make money off the resulting deformities in a “freak show” which was a regular occurrence at the music hall. That shit stays with you, and what are poems but things you can’t shake?

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are a big part of my creative process. I want my poems to sound good when read aloud, and as mentioned, that’s part of my editing process. There’s a certain clarity I’m striving for in my poems, both on the page and at readings. It’s the theatre background for sure, but my poems often have dramatic structure, a beginning-middle-end, and I think they work as stories. Maybe that’s an access point for certain audiences who might not be accustomed to poetry readings.

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’m concerned with human fragility—whether we recognize fragility in ourselves and others (and what the hell to do about it?). My book’s title references breath and what we release into the world…CO2 as this thing that is both necessary for and toxic to life on Earth. I suppose I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, not just for myself, but if it’s possible, for others, for the world.

This question carries over into my other writing. With composer Gareth Williams and Scottish Opera, I co-created a project called Breath Cycle, an opera with singers with cystic fibrosis (a genetic disorder that affects the whole body, but the most conspicuous symptom is breathing difficulty resulting from a mucus clogged respiratory system). The beginning of Breath Cycle happened concurrently with the writing for Everyone is CO2, and that frailty, that relationship between breath and voice is in a lot of these poems (e.g. ‘#4Eva’ is about Eva Markvoort, who passed away from cystic fibrosis in 2010).

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 don’t want to speak for other writers as I think we each get to decide what we want our role to be. The role of the writer should probably be the role of any human being: be kind, share space, get out of the way when it’s called for, get in the way when it’s necessary.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The editor for poetry is like the composer for a libretto, the director in a play. A partner with an interest in getting the best from the text. My experience with Paul Vermeersch editing Everyone is COwas swell, which is not to say we agreed on everything, but I left each editing session excited to get closer to the poems as opposed to feeling like I was off to do a chore. A lot of the editing happened in reading the poems aloud. Paul has an ear equal to his eye when it comes to poetry, and we relied on voice as a way of streamlining the editing process. 

I was recently chatting with Paul about the editor’s role, and he likens it to being a record producer: What are The Beatles without George Martin? Def Leppard’s Hysteria without Mutt Lange?

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“This play is to be performed relentlessly without break.” is the playwright’s note for Sam Shepard’s play Fool for Love. I’ve liked this sentence as a reminder to keep the energy up in a new piece of writing or later, when the afterglow fades from a piece through time, editing, self-doubt, or familiarity.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays to libretto)? What do you see as the appeal? 
I have a wide array of personal interests and tastes, so the idea of sticking to one genre has never been a consideration. Libretto writing contains the narrative elements of playwriting and the language concerns of poetry. They all feed into one another, and writing for opera has certainly made me a more capable, economic poet. I’m happy to have two libretti in Everyone is CO2 maybe as an introduction to those who might not read work meant for musical setting.

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?
Write early. Very early and with noise reduction headphones playing music without lyrics. I also need to feel healthy when I’m writing. This means sweating, intentionally, every day. I’ve lost the ability to write while feeling unhealthy, hungover, or generally depressed about the state of my insides.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Metal music. Ken Burns’s Baseball or ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries. Pub trivia. History books. Some sort of physical activity. Other poets.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Fabric softener laden dryer exhaust coming out the side vent of a house. Gin and tonics with lime and a wooden bowl of crunchy cheesies. Lawnmower gas.

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 Zoology degree creeps in from time to time. The language of anatomy and a general curiosity about what the hell animals are up to shows up in a number of the poems in Everyone is CO2.

In writing Everyone is CO2, I would take myself into some darker places by looking at Goya, Bosch, and a Toronto artist named Nicholas di Genova, whose imaginative work with hybrid creatures messes with my perception, loosens the restriction or fear I have about finished product. I want my work to have a sense of play, and seeing visual representations of this through artists engaging in a sort of “dark play” is definitely influential.

I always write to music—heavy and atmospheric, bands like Agalloch, Be’lakor, Woods of Desolation, and Enslaved. There is a sequence of poems in Everyone is CO2 that is consciously about music and musicians I admire: The Lemonheads, Jerry Reed, Death, Electric Light Orchestra, etc. exploring this need I have to soundtrack my life. I’m not afraid of silence, but I am conscious of music’s role on my mood, and hence, my writing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The plays of Beckett, Sam Shepard, and Martin McDonagh; the poems of Denis Johnson, Dennis Lee, Karen Solie, and Jim Smith; Shelby Foote’s U.S. Civil War writing; the lyrics of Jim Steinman on Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell album; the lyrics on Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
With writing: a black metal opera. Outside of writing: give my parents a lot of money.

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?
In my late teens/early twenties, I was on my way to being a cosmetic surgeon or naturopath until I decided to stop that all and go write plays in Victoria. Now I can barely remember the Krebs Cycle. I’d like to take a shot at professional poker player or antiques picker at this point.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My mom taught me to read on Alligator Pie and The Jungle Book. By the age of six, I had already developed a sense of nostalgia for those books and was trying to copy them: I ended up writing a lot of talking animal stories and rhyming verse. By grade three, I had put those attempts aside in favour of asking girls to “go with me” and playing organized sports.

Then at fifteen I saw Pulp Fiction. I wanted to try to copy what Tarantino was doing, so I started writing screenplays in Hilroy notebooks with no idea how that sort of thing could get done. I guess I still don’t.

Eventually, I started working backstage in community theatre and was conscious of how excited I was on my way to the theatre and on the way home. So I enrolled in a Aaron Bushowsky’s playwriting night class at Vancouver Film School, started submitting plays, won an award, and that little encouragement was enough get me to enroll in Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. UVic opened it all up, exposing me to other types of writing and writers, and yada yada yada, ten or so years later, here I am.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Aisha Sasha John’s Thou. Last great film: the second Hobbit movie with the giant dragon.

20 - What are you currently working on?
In July, I premiere a new play Centre of the Universe (Theatre Lab) for the Toronto Fringe Festival. It’s a site specific and multimedia play taking place in the main room of The Labyrinth Bar. The play is based on a short story I wrote a few years ago about a terrorist attack on Toronto that begins with planes flying into the CN Tower.

And my work on 
Breath Cycle continues with composer Gareth Williams in Glasgow. We were recently nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the Learning and Participation category for our creation Breath Cycle. Recognition from a prestigious body like the RPS comes at a good time since we are set to expand both the clinical and artistic strands of the project to London, Toronto and New York.

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