David B. Goldstein is the author of a poetry collection, Laws of Rest (BookThug, 2013), and a book of criticism, Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge, 2013), which won the 2014 Shakespeare’s Globe First Book Award. His next chapbook, Object Permanence, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse. He has published essays on a wide range of subjects, including Shakespeare, contemporary poetry, translation, and cookbooks. Goldstein lives with his family in Toronto, where he is Associate Professor of English at York University.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Laws of Rest is my first book, and it is definitely changing my life. Having a book feels very different from not having a book. There are many ways to be a “writer,” including publication in journals, blogs, magazines. But the word “author” conjures the image of a book—a gathering of papers between covers that have been glued rather than stapled. Foucault made much of the “author function” as an ideological operation, but now I’m thinking that the function has a lot to do with the fact of the book itself, as opposed to more ephemeral instances of writing. It feels strange to have suddenly graduated from “writer” to “author”—I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My parents tell me that I composed an impromptu haiku at the dinner table at age 4, but the first writing I remember doing was about 60 pages or so of a fantasy novel inspired by my Dungeons and Dragons characters, in which I was encouraged by my seventh-grade English teacher. I don’t think I’ve managed to achieve that quality or quantity of fiction since. When I was 15, I signed up for a poetry class in a summer arts program because I figured poetry would have the best female-to-male ratio. I chose wisely, both because I was indeed the only boy in the class, and because I ended up falling in love with poetry.
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?
The first draft of a poem usually comes very rapidly, in a few minutes or an hour at most. It’s often built from overheard conversation or other kinds of found language; I start transcribing what I’ve heard and the poem’s internal rhythms take over. Very rarely, I stick with the first draft after some minor tinkering. More commonly, the revision process can take months or years. I remember once hearing that Elizabeth Bishop would pin unfinished poems on her walls and would wait, sometimes years, for the right words to arrive to finish them. My process feels a bit like that.
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 rarely realize that I have a poetic “project” except retrospectively, when I’ve sat down with a bunch of poems and noticed that many of them circle back to the same ideas, or address the same set of procedures. Laws of Rest was something of an exception, in that I realized after a few of those poems that I had discovered an iterable procedure and wanted to explore its possibilities. (My chapbook, Been Raw Diction [Dusie 2006], was also conceived as a project from start to finish.) Still, it took a while to realize the form’s parameters. For example, in the final revision of the book, I decided to make the poems more precisely square. This meant tightening the margins by a fraction of an inch, which necessitated deleting at least one word from each line. Suddenly I had to justify the inclusion of every word in the book. It was a wonderful exercise.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings and I love listening to good readers. My poetry is more auditory than visual—I am always thinking about the proximity of poetry to song. I read my work aloud when composing and revising, and the rhythm of a line is paramount. I empathize with Robert Duncan’s habit of conducting while he gave readings. I constantly find new meanings and connections in my poems through the experience of performing them.
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?
What does it mean to create “original” words in the context of a tradition? How does one make a form? What’s the relation between speaking and silence? How does one honour the dead in words? Small stuff 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?
I think most writers are trying to get people to experience reality in a different way, to become attuned to new or overlooked aspects of one’s life and culture. I attempt to do this through language—I want my readers to experience language as lively, changing, strange.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. And wonderful. I don’t understand the fetish for thinking something has to be published precisely the way it was written. I think of writing as a collaborative project, and part of the fun is finding great editors with whom to shape my ideas and prose.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
About any interesting new idea, my grandfather (a World War II veteran) used to say, “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.” I take that as a credo for experimental poetry.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to journalism to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find that different kinds of writing use entirely separate parts of my brain, and I’m rarely able to write more than one at once. Usually my brain will find a way to announce, “You should be writing poetry now,” and I will suddenly start to listen and read differently. But the same is true of criticism or creative nonfiction. A certain kind of listening overwhelms me and I am forced to follow it.
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?
On a typical day, I get up with my kids, my wife and I get them ready, and I take my daughter to school. I’m glad I’m forced to get out of the house so early—otherwise I’d just mope about in my pjs. Then I come back and try to get started. That process can take a minute, or the whole day, depending on how deep in the flow of my work I happen to be. More often than not I need a lot of convincing before I am writing at a level I enjoy.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
By far my three most effective techniques are: picking up the phone and talking to a friend about whatever has got me stuck, reading work by other people, and going for a walk in the woods, in that order. Given that I live in downtown Toronto, I tend to rely more on the first two.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Garlic and onions frying in olive oil.
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?
Yes to all those. Poetry comes from everywhere. The chief goal of my poetry is to figure out how to get as much of experience as possible into the poetic line.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
It’s a very long list. Among the most important for Laws of Rest were Rilke, A.J. Heschel, Edmond Jabes, Francis Ponge, Augustine, Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Fanny Howe.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go camping with my family in Algonquin Park. That should be doable, yes?
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 sometimes wish I were a naturalist, hunting for tiny frogs in Costa Rica.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s often said that if you can do anything else, you will not become a writer, because it’s so difficult to make a living at it. I feel blessed to be sheltered by the university system, which is one of the few institutions in North America that makes it possible to be a writer. I don’t write because I don’t have a choice, I write because it is the most thrilling and gratifying thing I can imagine doing, though also among the hardest.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Can I choose two books? Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Ronald Johnson, ARK. Movies: from 1:30 am-4 am of Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
20 - What are you currently working on?
My next poetry collection, Lost Originals, investigates the juncture between translation and metaphor.
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