Daniel Cowper is a poet and writer from Bowen Island, BC. His first chapbook, The God of Doors, was published in 2017 as co-winner of Frog Hollow Press’ chapbook contest. His first full-length book of poetry, Grotesque Tenderness, is being published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in Spring 2019. He lives on Bowen Island with his wife, Emily Osborne, and, by the time this is published, their infant son.
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?
Years ago, people told me a few times to think of myself as a poet of nature or heartbreak, and I tried to follow their advice. But the acceptance of my chapbook, with its more diverse themes, encouraged me to focus on other subjects. As a result, much of the poetry I’ve written since is narrative and contains cultural critique — a “life & crimes” of Roman Polanski playing the role of Sextus Tarquinius, and a mythological history of western Canada, for example. I think my recent work is more exuberant than my older poetry.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I much prefer writing poetry to prose. I think this is because musical values at play in poetry allow more possibilities of approaching perfection (or at least stable equilibria) than exist in prose. Prose always feels unsettled to me in comparison to poetry. I only write prose when there’s an idea I feel I must work on, and it refuses to be written in verse.
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?
Some poems pop into being almost fully-formed, ex nihilo. More often I’ll mull over an idea for a few days, or weeks, or months without composing a word, and then - scribble scribble - the first draft comes all of a sudden.
With longer projects, I like to research the subject thoroughly. For The Life & Crimes of Sextus Tarquinius, for example, I did many hours of research, reading conflicting accounts of the stories, watching and listening to interviews with the real people upon whose lives the poem is based, trying to catch their voices and personalities.
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’ve never set out to write a ‘book’ of poetry. Maybe I will do so accidentally - for the last month I’ve been working on a sequence of poems about Vancouver, or the notion of “City” more abstractly. I’ve got about 20 pages now, and I’m nowhere near done, so I have started to wonder whether it will turn into a book-length sequence. But I am very conscious of the temptation to make something longer than it needs to be for the sake of ulterior motives.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love to read or recite my poems aloud, whether in public or private. And it is always exciting to share them with others. I find the prospect of sharing work - whether at a reading, or in a workshop - helps me to look at the work with a more critical eye and accelerates my editing process. So for me, the anticipated audience is as important as the actual audience.
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?
The concerns that are behind my writing are mainly practical — how can one make the most beautiful speech with the language one is given? Why is the world so full of marvels? What’s wrong with me?
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 artists, including writers, are meant to help people resist nihilism. In our present society, epistemology is upside down: people are sure that if you go through a wormhole, you could time-travel, but they’re skeptical about the reality of their own internal self. And disbelief in oneself - and the nihilism that implies - is always a temptation. I think one role that art, especially writing, can serve is to reaffirm the reality and value of the human self, or mind, or soul, or whatever you want to call it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. It’s a tremendous privilege whenever an editor tries to make my work better. I try to suppress my natural defensiveness and make the most of any opportunity to benefit from an editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Ezra Pound sneered at T.S. Eliot for being too obvious, for making things too easy on his readers. Pound was clearly wrong, and his mistake implies, I think, that it’s practically impossible to be too obvious unless you abandon artistry altogether.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
A change is as good as a rest. It is wonderfully refreshing to change genres. And each idea needs to be embodied in its natural genre — most of my ideas want to be poems, but other, equally imperative ideas, need to be worked out in other forms.
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 try to balance writing with my day job and my marriage. Monday to Friday, I try to get downtown early, and use that time to write. I use lunchtime as an excuse to do the same. If I get two hours to write, it’s been a great day. Big changes are coming, in the form of a baby, and a break from work. My wife and I will need to develop a new routine as a result.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If one project is stalled — I leave it alone and work on another. If I’ve exhausted myself, and need more ideas — I turn back to my notes or rummage through an anthology until my mind starts to bubble again. If I’m too bummed to be creative — I translate Du Bellay’s Regrets into demotic English until it cheers me up. If I’m too worn out to think at all — I walk.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
I’ve never thought of nature as ‘form,’ but it’s interesting to do so. Nature is endlessly suggestive. More conventionally, I’ve been influenced by some songwriters, like Alex Beaupain and Joanna Newsom. Visual art has shaped a lot of my internal world, so it has undoubtedly exerted an influence on my imagination — paintings and sculptures are probably responsible for my love of interrupted gestures.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Many, many books have been important to me, both personally and in my development as a writer. My home is full of books that “spark joy” for me. I’ve spent far more time reading J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis than any other authors but although they’re both important for my personal life, I can’t say they’ve directly influenced my poetry. Leave that to Edith Sitwell, Richard Wilbur, Anne Carson, T.S. Eliot, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn to play an instrument. Learn to sing.
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 would have liked to be a painter. I love to draw and paint, but I never developed my craftsmanship in that art form to a satisfactory level.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I had the good luck to be raised in a community where everyone was expected to participate in the arts - and I found language was my natural medium. Writing is a very forgiving art form lifestyle-wise - you can carry all your tools in one pocket, and there’s no set-up or clean-up required — so the practice of writing has stayed with me through a number of moves and day-jobs, getting steadily stronger.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Madame Bovary. Film: Won’t you be my neighbour?
20 - What are you currently working on?
In addition to the sequence of poems about the City, I’m finishing up a couple of prose projects that need to be pushed out into the world - a novella or short novel about a love triangle and a children’s novel about a little girl who finds out her reflection is actually another little girl, her counterpart somewhere else. In the last couple of days I wrote a short story, which is a rare event in my life: maybe a sign of things to come.
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