Tuesday, January 12, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Robert Anderson

Robert Anderson's 44 page chapbook The Hospital Poems has recently been published by Bookthug.  His poetry has been published in such journals as Rampike, b after c, and House Organ.   His critical writing on poetry and art have been published in Canadian Art Magazine Online and the American webpage Fjords Review.   He is also an award winning art photographer who shown his work extensively in Toronto and has self published a collection of his art called The Other Side of There.  He is a volunteer archivist at The Psychiatric Survivors Archives of Toronto.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I’m now dating Charlize Theron.  Other than that, life’s pretty much the same.  The red moon came and went.

I look at myself as following the trajectory of people like William Burroughs and Nicole Brossard.  I have my own style of writing.  I follow my own interests, sort of like life writing.  I want to see where it takes me.  I’m not one of those Death of the Authors type.  The Hospital Poems is now part of my past.  I have a lot of unpublished work. I write and live at my own expense.  Intention is another kind of ward. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was a teenager, I think I always wrote poetry trying to impress some girl.  You could do that back in the 1970s.  It was a totally different era.  Now if you tell a girl you’re a poet, you might as well tell her you have herpes. 

As a teenager, I was very isolated and constantly in hospitals.  I use to listen to Bob Dylan albums nonstop.  I hated his music at first, but after I read his biography it all made sense to me.  Through Dylan I got interested in poetry.  It had the magic.  It had the mythic quality.  It was like having a dream that you couldn’t explain.  It was the life of Rimbaud. Poetry was the voice of the disenfranchised.  It had a vision and articulation you couldn’t find in other types of writing.  Poetry rebelled against what was fake and phony. 

Most recently, after having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for about 4 years and the frequent hospitalizations, writing poetry brought me back to being able to express myself, to write myself into some kind of life. 

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 think I’m like my former graduate English teacher Frank Davey.  He didn’t believe in inspiration as much as poetry being a work of construction.  I’ve always got a million things on my mind –whether poetry or art.  I never understood people in art college or writing classes who couldn’t think of something they want to do.  I write notes, lines as they come to me.  I don’t really do a lot of editing.  I love taking courses with the Toronto New School of Writing because it gives me an audience.  It helps focus my mind, which isn’t easy for me to do.  Everything in life always looks so far away to me.  I once heard Robert Creeley speak in person and he compared his method of writing to that of a baseball pitcher who gets on a roll and keeps throwing strikes.  That sounds good to 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 always want to write a book.  That’s why I like my unpolished serial poem CODE 7.  I started at the beginning and wrote it in order to the end.  THE HOSPITAL POEMS is different.  It’s in a different order except for the last 5 poems or so are exactly the last 5 poems I wrote.  I’ve never put in for a grant so I don’t really feel the need to define the work before I begin.  The poems begin at Coffee Time with my handwriting them in a notebook.  I don’t think that’s really what you mean by the question, but I like to stay grounded.  The poem begins with what’s happening in my life at the moment. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
The very first reading I ever did was one Karl Jirgens put me in to celebrate the anniversary of Rampike and Open Letter.  That was great because all the readers were great poets.  Out in BC, a young lady I’ve gotten to know Shazia Hafiz Ramji has started a reading series.  That should be great because she’s very bright and a talented writer.  Here in Toronto, I really feel less and less apart of the reading scene.  I don’t really fit in with the younger crowd.  A lot of them seem to be more inspired by Jim Carrey than any poet I’ve read.  People go to the readings looking for laughs.  There are also some very pretentious readings going on.  The members of these groups seem to feel they’re the leaders of some new republic. 

I guess I long for the days of my old Atkinson College writing teacher Stanley Fefferman.  He studied at Naropa and was heavily influenced by Buddhism.  Stanley always brought a sense of dignity to the proceedings.  He also had the courage to follow his own direction in life. 

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?

It’s interesting, but a lot of writers feel they don’t engage theory when they write.  But if you write with the belief that language can accurately represent realty, than that too is a theory.  It’s hard for someone like myself to be a naïve writer, especially going through the graduate English department at York University when I did.  I’m concerned with the correlation of thought/vision/expression and the discourse of language and literature.  The double world.  For myself, it’s how to live and write as an artist.  I think current theories for most writers are on how to join the Borg Collective. 

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?
The current role of the writer in Canada is to be a mouthpiece of the federal Liberals or NDP.  That’s what it seems like.  Finding tenured writing jobs at university also seems to be a preoccupation of today’s poets.  I don’t really see much else behind the writing.  Most writers today come from MFA programs, and they learn to write in a homogenized style and dream of winning a Griffin Award.  Becoming Poet laureate of Toronto gets you 10 thousand dollars and a Tim Horton’s gift card.  In today’s world, the literary establishment of Canada feels that literature should be like little league baseball:  everyone gets a turn a bat.  That’s great when you’re a kid or in high school, but it doesn’t interest me.  People living on the street are probably more interesting to me. 

I’m old enough to remember the star power of seeing people like Allen Ginsberg perform in New York City.  When I saw Ginsberg in the mid 1990’s in New York, he spoke about how the beat generation was all about freedom of expression and having tolerance for other people.  That certainly isn’t the poetry scene now.  Ginsberg also spoke about his hatred of political correctness and insisted it was started by the rightwing in America.  Now poetry is all about political correctness.  There’s a growing literary McCarthyism scene in Canada.  Everyday they demonized someone new on social media and call them a racist or misogynist or whatever they can think of.  Usually the poets who do this are wimpy little characters in person but on social media they’re filled with bravado. 

Allen Ginsberg, probably the most famous gay American when he was alive, always rejected being the grand marshal in the New York Gay Pride Parade.  He felt the parade made gay people look ridiculous.  Can you imagine a famous Canadian poet saying that today?  They’d be run out of the country. 

I think poetry should be part of the counter culture, which no longer seems to exist.  A poet should fight against the sanctioned writing industry that sucks the soul out of the writer.  A poet should conceal more than reveal.  I don’t think they belong on social media.  It’s about going your own way in life.   A new world is only a new mind -- William Carlos Williams

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Really Victor Coleman was the editor of THE HOSPITAL POEMS.  Nobody has more experience editing innovative poetry that Victor does from all his years at Coach House.  He made my work more readable and made it read like I intended it to be. 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To live outside the law you must be honest -- Bob Dylan.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to photography to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I really like merging my poetry with my art photography and, of course, my life.  I started out in photography wanting to be a photojournalist or a documentarian.  It’s in the last 10 years I think I’ve managed to merge the art and the writing.  I self-published a chapbook called The Other Side of There.  It’s basically about what I’ve gone through in the last number of years.  Some of it simply documents the time I’ve spent in the hospital.  I’m also doing a re-visioning of Diane Arbus’ famous serious of mental patients.  Like my poetry, it’s always ongoing, maybe never to be completed.  My art chapbook features some of my critical writing but probably in a more poetic form than a typical artist statement.

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?
I don’t really have a writing routine or any other kind of routine.  I suffer from depression and every day seems like a struggle.  I’m not careerist and don’t do a very good job of promoting myself. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’m often isolated and I don’t see much around me that inspires my work.  I tend to turn inward for inspiration, if it really exists.   I can’t write at home and I can’t write when I’m alone.  I always write when I’m around people.  What drives me seems totally different than what drives other poets I know.  The whip that’s keeping them alive doesn’t make me jump. 

I don’t know if I believe in “inspiration” in that sense.  It’s always there for me.  What stalls me is a sense of hopelessness.  I don’t really know if I’m reaching anyone with my work.  I like having an audience. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’ll have to get back to you on that one when I figure out what a “home” is. 

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?
Well, this would bring me back to Dylan.  He had the alchemy of words and music.  Beyond that, I studied film back in the early 1980s at York University.  I was fortunate to have teachers who were really interested in the avant-garde and the alternative cinema.  You can’t help but be influenced by that work.  Art and threatre also has had a big impact on my work.  The plays of Sam Shepard and the visual arts had a large impact on my next book of poetry CODE 7.  I don’t think there’s ever been a better movie than Meshes of the Afternoon

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There’s two poets who wrote blurbs on the back of my chapbook.  One is Sandra Ridley.  I think she’s the best poet writing in Canada today.  She never gets the recognition she deserves because she doesn’t play the game you need to play to be recognized.  The other poet who wrote a blurb on my chapbook is Julie Joosten.  She’s a very important person to me, along with being a great poet.  She’s totally different than anyone else on the literary scene.  She has no ego, she’s totally brilliant and she’s very accepting of people.  She doesn’t have some self-important agenda. Both Sandra and Julie give great readings and they always seem to reach for higher ground. 

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I always feel I should be doing more to help other people.  I do volunteer work at the Psychiatric Survivors Archives of Toronto and I feel it gives a dignity to people who have had really bad lives.  But I really like working with people.  I don’t have any desire to be a Facebook activist. 
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 never was one of those who dreamt about occupations.  Even when I was doing my MA in English I never thought of it as leading to a career.  I think it’s great when people become lawyers or doctors or whatever.  It just never felt real to me.  I think my experiences in life have defined me as an outsider.  When I was real young I wanted to be an undercover cop, like on The Mod Squad.  I didn’t want to have to get my haircut or wear a uniform. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The late Eli Mandel, one of my former graduate English teachers and one of this countries great academics and poets, wrote a poem about being captured by the “terror” of poetry.  He included rock stars Hendrix and Joplin as being poets.  It’s really romanticizing creativity, but I like it.  I don’t think I chose to write poetry.  I think it chose me.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Hospital Poems.  I really like myself.  Besides that, anything by Sandra Ridley is great.  I don’t see a lot of films.  I love the old avant-garde type films I use to see in film theory classes at York University.  In the commercial realm, I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was a great film for artists.  Most of the poets I know hated it.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Writing metaphors of invisibility.  Integrating my poetry and art.  Working on constructs and a way out.  Trying to figure out where I’ve been and where I’m going.   Coping in a world where people kill to dissect.  Rereading my long serial poem Code 7 to see if it works.  Writing Cuchulain back to life.   

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

joelene heathcote said...

This is a brilliant interview. Love the humour. Question and answer#7 is so genius and hilarious. I love that kind of honesty. Quotable. Thanks