Sunday, June 17, 2018
12 or 20 (second series) questions with David Alexander
David Alexander is the author of After the Hatching Oven (Nightwood Editions, 2018) and the chapbooks Modern Warfare (Anstruther Press, 2016) and Chicken Scratch (Puddles of Sky, 2014). His work has been shortlisted for The Walrus Poetry Prize, Arc Poem of the Year, FreeFall Magazine Annual Poetry Contest, and the Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in Bad Nudes, The Humber Literary Review, The Literary Review of Canada and many other fine journals and magazines. David volunteers as a reader for The Puritan and works in the nonprofit sector. He lives in Toronto with his wife Stephanie, their two daughters, and two cats.
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?
My first chapbook was a demo tape for After the Hatching Oven, my newly published first book. Chicken Scratch captures my early efforts writing poems through an animal rights lens. Once I had about twenty pieces, it made sense to try to publish some as a chapbook so I reached out to Michael Casteels at Puddles of Sky and to my delight he was interested. It was rewarding to finally have something to share with friends and family, since I’d been telling everyone I was a poet for many years with nothing to show. Michael crafted a beautiful little book, and a few months later it was even reviewed! To read another writer engage with my work was extremely validating.
After the Hatching Oven continues my exploration of how a chicken means—if that was the demo tape, I guess this is the concept album. The poems written since plunge deeper with poems rippling out in new directions. Assembling a full manuscript and waiting to hear from publishers gave me plenty of time to tinker and add new work. I’m grateful, to a certain extent, for that two year delay between first sending out the manuscript and its eventual publication. On the other hand, I spent a lot of time worrying that no one would ever publish it. Now that it’s a done deal—thank you Nightwood!—I can move onto doubting the quality of newer work.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My parents and grandparents used to make up stories before bed and write poems in birthday cards and letters from Santa, so I think some kind of creative impulse was seeded very early. The first poem I remember writing was in sixth grade. It was a haiku about finding a mouldy sandwich in my desk. There’s a lot wrong with how poetry is taught in schools, but if writing short poems about mouldy sandwiches is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. I was having trouble fitting in at a new school and when my classmates laughed at the mouldy sandwich poem that made me feel alright. Sue Goyette was on the radio the other day talking about how “chasing funny” primed her to think laterally and make unusual connections; that approach to poetry certainly resonates with me.
Along the way to this book, my writing life was nourished by high school writer’s craft, attempted songwriting, my grandparents clipping How Poems Work columns from The Globe and Mail, publishing an annual poetry magazine and planning student readings at WLU, and a couple of continuing education courses taught by Sonnet L’Abbé and Ken Babstock. The experience with student readings and slapdash anthologizing helped me see how accessible poetry can be and how many people dabble in poetry. Pretty much anybody can write a poem or spend a few minutes to read or hear one. And every poem carries potential access to new perspectives. I suppose that’s true of all writing, but poetry really gets you right in there.
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?
My writing practice is a bit of a mess. When I get going, I’m good for a couple new poems a month, but when I’m busy writing tends to go on hiatus—I have two young kids and I’ve spent most of my adult life working full-time managing projects and events in the nonprofit sector. As a result, I suspect that discard less than most poets, at least at the poem level. Some pieces seem to come out fully-formed. Most get revised and pared down. I find it difficult to add during editing, but things can change quite dramatically. I’m not a use-poems-for-spare-parts kind of person, but with this book I pieced together some remixes, rewrites, centos, and cento-like poems. I enjoyed his approach because it toned down my impulse to endow my poems with coherent endpoints. Once I knew what this project was about, the universe delivered all kids of interesting symbols, stories, and facts about chickens. A few were written in response to ads, movie clips, articles, and other cultural reference points, sometimes forwarded by my friend Greg. A couple of list poems were crafted in response to research about fictional chickens and flightless birds. Another was pieced together from the text of an online agriculture course about chickens.
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?
Before I knew I was working towards this book, I knew that I wanted to explore ideas about animals differently from most of the poetry I’d come across. After writing the first poem in the book – which grapples with an animal’s capacity to imagine their own liberation – I was unsatisfied. So I embarked to deconstruct it and compose variations through self-translations or by riffing on the sounds, structures, and images of that first poem. This created a common architecture that many of the poems in the book to riff and respond to. Still, I started almost every new poem as a self-contained project with its own voice, constraints, and potential breaking points. Despite a clear set of thematic concerns, each poem attempted something new. A lot of my poems begin as an idea for a poem, but it helps sometimes to forget the initial idea and just write.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy readings, but I tend to read poems I like over those I’m uncertain about. I’m not sure I’d be able to detect what works from the stage. Perhaps if I did more readings, they would become more useful to my process.
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?
This book emerged out of a decade working with vegetarians and vegans to drive social change. Concepts of animal welfare / compassion / justice / rights – as well as the position one occupies when seeking to challenge dominant cultural values – had a huge influence. The poems ask why is the gulf so vast between chickens written into children’s stories and those confined in concentrated feeding operations? What does it mean to laud the mother hen and the vigilant rooster even as childless “layer hens” are killed when their reproductive systems slow, when male chicks of these breeds are disposed of outright? What does it say that we play god with another species’ genetics and environment, but fail to meaningful update animal welfare legislation to address the cruel economic whims of late capitalism? Poetry helped me dig into these questions in an interesting, hopefully informative, manner.
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 certainly consider writing to be a form of civic engagement… or maybe exploration. A poet should grapple with what things mean and strive to deconstruct oppressive systems. But we’re not essayists; a poem should sing. I write poems when I can’t figure out what to say or how to say it. Maybe Lawrence Ferlinghetti said it better: “The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.”
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Occasionally, I realize that I’ve landed something worthwhile on my own. But in most cases an outside voice helps me get there, or at least recognize where there is. I’ve found working with editors and close readers very useful. I was working with Stuart Ross when I started these poems and his feedback and encouragement for experimentation had a big influence. My friend Annick MacAskill has my gratitude as a first reader for many of the poems. Her friendship, feedback, and insights helped get this manuscript into submission shape. I also learned some neat tricks from Blair Trewartha, who edited my Anstruther chapbook. My editor at Nightwood, Carleton Wilson, raised the quality of the book by asking the right questions to help fix its weak spots.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Better to do a few things well, or some version of that.
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?
Wish I did. I used to start a lot of poems on the subway on the way to work. I did a lot a lot of work on this book on parental leave when my first-born was napping. I wrote a few poems at a café near her first daycare provider. I wrote some on my smartphone late at night. I even wrote a couple at workshops with Stuart Ross. I spend a lot of time editing (and submitting poems) on my computer, which usually happens on weekends or after the kids are asleep.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing this book was helpful because it provided a lens through which new inputs could be translated into poems. I wish I could be more prolific, but I have other things to do. At this point in my life, I’m okay with waiting for inspiration to take hold. I recently wrote an ode to a box of facial tissues. The other day, I found a poem I started five years ago after seeing Ira Glass on tour. Once, I tried to write a bunch of poems for friends, which was interesting, but ultimately had a low success rate. The biggest thing that helps is trying new things.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Growing up: the smell of newspaper. Currently: oven-roasted potatoes, onions, carrots, and cauliflower.
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?
Lyrics and music definitely carry influence. In this book… chickens pop up all over the place if you’re looking for them. In advertising, kids stories, tv and movies, poems, home decor, restaurants, backyards, in trucks, in plastic packaging, etc. Videos and photography from factory farms (and animal sanctuaries) are also widely available. Like most people, I haven’t had much direct experience around chickens. And yet chicken imagery abounds. It all went into the book.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I reference a lot of other texts and writers in After the Hatching Oven. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? by journalist Andrew Lawler was a great resource for information about chickens. One of my epigraphs is from Sarah Lindsay’s poetry. When I started this project, her writing was among the first I found to centre animals in a way I sought to emulate.
Recreationally, I’m a huge nerd for George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – if I were a younger person, I’d probably be off at conventions. Instead, I listen to podcasts about the themes and symbolism in Martin’s writing and wait for The Winds of Winter to come. It’s possible that Martin’s generous use of symbolism influenced After the Hatching Oven.
I suspect some key poems have become unconsciously embedded in my poetrics. I recently reread Dennis Lee’s “400 Coming Home” for the first time in years, and was surprised by its enduring resonance with even my recent work.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to try writing in new formats: kids books, comics, television.
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?
Well, I enjoy my work in the nonprofit sector. If I were starting my career again… I don’t know. I like podcasts about law, journalism, hockey, music, pop culture, but I think I’m content as just a fan. Maybe if I weren’t a writer, I’d have time to do a podcast.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Brother by David Chariandy was great. I’m still spending time with Dreampad by Jeff Latosik, which is full of wonder. NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is top-notch sci-fi. My most recent favourite film was Thor: Ragnarok. I watch a lot of kids movies so it was nice to see something with big explosions. Scratch that—Coco was better. It told a heartfelt and touching story, which is to say I bawled.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I recently started a new job as Festival Director for The Word On The Street in Toronto, so I’m spending a lot of time with that. The team is currently working very hard to get the festival programmed, exhibitors registered, marketing plans made, site logistics organized, etc, etc..
In my writing life, I have 40-pages written towards another manuscript, but I don’t know whether or when that turns into a next book. Last year, I started to write poems after the 88 modern constellations; that felt too convoluted so I took a break.
Now that my first book is launched, I’ll probably turn my attention back to poems that are not about chickens. I’d like to publish another chapbook soon so maybe that’ll be next.
[David Alexander reads in Ottawa on Friday, as part of The Factory Reading Series pre-ottawa small press book fair event]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;