Michael Prior’s poems have appeared in numerous journals across North America and the UK. A past winner of The Walrus’s Poetry Prize (2014), Grain’s Short Grain Contest (2014), and Matrix’s Lit Pop Award (2015), Michael’s first book of poems, Model Disciple, appeared from Véhicule Press in spring 2016. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Cornell University. [note: this interview was conducted in March; Model Disciple is now very much available]
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’m not sure. I keep writing and reading. Model Disciple is a month away from becoming something tangible in the sense that I could slip it onto a shelf or hurl it at the squirrels who argue outside my window at three in the morning. I’m at work on the next thing, and the next thing is always the next poem.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I had always liked poetry, but I managed to avoid reading it seriously, deeply, until the last couple years of my undergrad—however, when I did, certain poems and poets made sense (or poignant nonsense) in a visceral, intuitive way. I remember reading Dickinson’s “Adventure most unto itself” and then feeling as if the experience had taken the top of my head off.
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?
It takes a while: Nowadays, I write much more slowly than I used to. Sometimes it’s a gradual accumulation of notes, or sometimes a poem just speaks, and if I listen closely enough, I can catch it, almost whole. Regardless of how the first draft comes into being, I spend a substantial amount of time editing. I’ve (thankfully) learned to be more patient with the process over the last couple years.
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 like compelling, focused book-length projects, but I’ve always found my attention drawn more toward individual poems, rather than a book’s conceptual frameworks—though, I’ll admit it’s specious to pretend such distinctions always hold. Model Disciple arose around a set of inheritances (familial, cultural, and literary), but it was never meant to be a “project” per se, merely a collection of what my editor and I thought were my best poems—poems which, when placed into conversation, cohere into something larger.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t think readings play much of a role in my creative process, and I can’t say I like hearing my own voice (my voice, as I hear it in my head, is much better and sexier than my actual speaking voice—it sounds a little like George Takei), but I do appreciate the community-building and sense of inclusivity that can occur at a thoughtfully curated reading series.
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?
In this particular book, I try to be attentive to my Japanese Canadian-ness, my half-ness, and what I feel are my various literary affinities, and cultural identities—inextricably personal and public at once. In my mind, right now, the most constant question is how does a poet write a moving, memorable poem, and then do it again and again differently, spectacularly, quietly, beautifully, painfully, funnily? There are so many writers whose work I deeply admire and love asking this in insightful ways.
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 believe I have an obligation to be as truthful as I can about aspects of my own experience, but at the same time, I often feel like the only debt a writer owes any larger culture is merely that they continue to work, and, as James Merrill once said, continue to seek “English in its billiard-table sense—words that have been set spinning against their own gravity.”
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential: I recently finished Joan Didion’s After Henry, a collection of essays dedicated to her long-time editor, Henry Robbins, who passed away before its publication. In the introduction, Didion writes, that a good editor’s role is vast and varied but that its greatest importance might have something to do with “maintain[ing] a faith the writer shares only in intermittent flashes.” In my experience, this rings true. I feel very fortunate to have learned so much from several great editors, and Carmine Starnino, who edited this book, has taught me a lot about what it means to see a project through with generosity and humour.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Eduardo C. Corral (Eduardo, I’m sorry if I misremember this): “Read widely of your contemporaries, but attend most closely to the dead.”
10 - 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 wish I had a routine!
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
At this moment: Roger Reeves’ “In the Lone Horse and Plum, Wu-Tang;” Mary Ruefle’s “Short Lecture on The Nature of Things;” Eszter Balint’s “Airless Midnight;” Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall;” Laura Clarke’s “Urkingdom;” Haruki Murakami’s “Super Frog Saves Tokyo;” Ben Ladouceur’s “Armadillo;” “Ian Duhig’s “Clare’s Jig;” Sheryda Warrener’s “Long Distance;” everything Alabama Shakes; and This music video from Flight Facilities.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I grew up near Vancouver. So, the smell of the Pacific.
13 - 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?
Some of my best memories from my childhood involve watching TV with my dad, who would patiently answer my incessant questions. So, I would have to say films and TV probably inform my writing in unintended ways. I remember a lot of Westerns from Sergio Leone to John Ford, and then, later, episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Imagine trying to explain the ethical mandate of the United Federation of Planets to a five year old (I love you, Dad).
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A dozen off the top of my head: Thom Gunn, James Merrill, Eduardo. C. Corral, Alice Fulton, Ishion Hutchinson, Hannah Sanghee Park, Jim Johnstone, Michael Donaghy, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Scotland! There are, in my opinion, so many fantastic poets working there right now.
16 - 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 doubt I have the skillset for much else, but I would have loved to have been a cinematographer. Or how about a professional dog walker? It’s always seemed to me like a pretty great gig: my friend, the poet Richard Kemick (owner of Maisy the Wonder Dog), worked as a dog walker for one summer and really enjoyed it.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There were detours into photography and music, but I think, as is often the case, a series of great teachers and professors nudged me towards writing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Too many books! Too many films! I think my responses to questions eleven and fourteen might contain an answer.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m still recovering from Model Disciple, but there are poems.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;