Kevin Shaw was born and raised in London, ON. His poems have appeared in the Malahat Review, the Gay & Lesbian Review, Contemporary Verse 2, Grain, and the Fiddlehead. He received Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year award and the Grand Prize in the PRISM international Poetry Contest. His debut collection, Smaller Hours, was published by icehouse poetry/Goose Lane Editions in fall 2017.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book just came out a couple of months ago so it may be too soon to tell. The book collects several years’ worth of poems and it’s gratifying to be able to hold that effort in my hands. It also feels like I’m now free to move on to explore new ideas, subjects, etc.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Although I had written a few poems here and there as a kid and as a teenager, I came to poetry a bit late. I thought I was going to be a journalist, a fiction writer, and finally a playwright/screenwriter. Poetry always felt like a locked room and I didn’t have the key. It wasn’t until university when I was exposed to more contemporary Canadian writing, and discovered a tradition of queer poetry, that I began to write it more frequently. I also write essays (I’m not a big fan of the term “creative nonfiction”) and I find it helpful to move back and forth between the genres.
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 a fairly slow writer. Even short lyric poems often depend on a lot of rumination and notes before I actually get down to the writing (although I can’t tell if that’s a process or just laziness?) I’ve learned to become comfortable with the waiting periods between the initial idea and setting it down on the page, and even then the writing is very often a process of accretion over a few days or weeks. My first drafts rarely look like the final shape.
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?
Poems come from all sources—memories, overheard turns of phrase, experiences, reading, movies. When I first began writing poems they were standalone pieces and I didn’t assume they’d ever end up in a book. It wasn’t until I was beginning to put together a manuscript that I realized I was circling around similar ideas or questions. That realization then fueled more poems. I think a balance of both approaches would be ideal—I’d be more productive, but also open to the surprises.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m always grateful to be asked to read, and especially grateful for the people who come out, and for those reasons I’ve been working to become a better performer of my work. This is likely just my own shyness, but readings weren't my favourite way to share my poems or to encounter the poetry of others (although I do admire those writers who are superstar performers of their own writing.) That said, I’ve given more readings in the past year than I ever have before and it’s been fascinating to hear how audiences respond differently to different poems. I'm enjoying it a lot more.
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?
When I was working on Smaller Hours I was completing my PhD dissertation on LGBTQ writing and censorship. I was reading a lot of queer theory, particularly around time and historiography, and I think that’s definitely in the background of the poems. The questions I was interested in were about history, both personal and public. I often think about gay history as silence or invisibility, but writing these poems became more about trying to recapture the code that had been used for decades to share those experiences that were hiding in plain sight.
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 turn to writers for questions, ideas and provocations, entertainment, comfort (but not necessarily in that order).
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I was fortunate to work with Jeffery Donaldson as my editor on Smaller Hours and it was so valuable to have his impeccable ear. I also workshop regularly with a group of writers in London and find both giving and receiving feedback useful.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To practice gratitude.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I write essays and poetry and I find they often fuel each other. Critical prose feels quite separate from my poetry, but when I work on a personal essay I sometimes go back and forth in the early stages wondering if what I’m working on is an essay or a poem. One thing I like about prose is that I find I can force myself to sit down and work on an essay but poetry doesn’t work the same way (again—possibly laziness).
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?
My day job is mostly writing and editing in the tech industry and I find it can drain a lot of my creative energy. I pay myself first by getting up early in the morning to write, or to try to write. If I’m lucky, I can get some longer stretches on the weekend.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I keep a notebook of nearly abandoned ideas and lines that can sometimes spur new work. I also have a folder on my computer called “Misfires” that holds drafts of incomplete and/or problem poems. Sometimes one of those can offer a line to send me off in a new direction. A book, film, or exhibit can offer inspiration, but so can dinner with friends.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The hoppy, yeasty smell of the Labatt’s brewery.
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?
Visual art, and particularly film, influences my work more than the others (aside from other books). Paintings and films provide many subjects for poems, but I also like the process of assembling a narrative or at least a poem’s movement by splicing together images, scenes, and snatches of dialogue or text, which I think of as essentially filmic.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This is not an exhaustive list but some of my favourites in poetry are John Barton, Hart Crane, Mark Doty, Randall Mann, Shane Rhodes, and Bronwen Wallace. And in essays: Joan Didion and the Davids (Rakoff and Sedaris). And then those writers who straddle the line between genres like Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson. I was a voracious reader of Alice Munro as a teenager so she definitely left a mark, and I still return to her stories.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Likely a cliche answer, but I’d like to travel more.
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?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve written for as long as I can remember. Like a lot of writers, I think it likely started as a response to a book and thinking: I want to do that, too. Because you have to spend a lot of time alone, I think writing also suits my introverted temperament.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m currently reading Randall Mann’s newest collection, Proprietary, and Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities—I heartily recommend both. The last great film I saw was Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m taking some time to work more on essays, many of them about food (vicariously living my chef dreams!) I’ve also started slowly working on some new poetry. I had the intention to break away from “the gay stuff” but I just wrote a poem about a men’s underwear ad so I’m not sure how successful I’ll be.
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