Thursday, October 04, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Steven Ross Smith

Steven Ross Smith, writer and sound poet, has published eleven books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and has appeared on more than ten recordings in group and solo contexts. His book fluttertongue book 3: disarray, won the 2005 Book of the Year Award at the Saskatchewan Books Awards. The chapbook Pliny’s Knickers, a collaboration between Smith, poet Hilary Clark and artist Betsy Rosenwald, won the 2006 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Smith has performed his work and/or been published in England, Holland, Russia, Portugal, USA, and Canada. His most recent book is fluttertongue 4: adagio for the pressured surround published by NeWest Press in April 2007.

Photo credit: Tammy Boehmer

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I’m not sure if the first book changed my life, but it did get me over that first hurdle, and make me feel I should keep working, and might be able to publish another one. Interestingly, my first book – Ritual Murders, a small short book that is a collection of terse cryptic fictions, some with graphic sexual content – was not well-received, though did get an excerpt read on national CBC Radio. It was published in 1983, at a time of heightened women’s consciousness, and some of the stories showed women in what could be interpreted as ‘victim situations’. I was trying to write erotic murder stories that explored the link between sex and violence. I was not trying to write snuff-stories or misogynistic tales, but more importantly was pushing the short story form, with narrative twists, character confusions, and so on, with a poetic tone. All of this was missed by reviewers, and in fact some reviewers refused to review the book at all.

I wasn’t really shattered by this, but was a bit mystified. I believed in the work, and still like it today. I now own all the unsold copies – a few hundred I think – and I still sell them from time to time, and some readers have responded favourably, so this eases the pain of having written what seems to be a near-invisible book.

2 - How long have you lived in Saskatoon, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing?

I have lived in Saskatoon since 1987, when I fled the ‘fast-lane’ in Toronto where I had grown up and spent about 40 years. I came to Saskatoon to find a financially modest life-style that would allow me to focus on writing, which my paying work in media in Toronto had taken me away from. Shortly after I arrived in Saskatoon, I was hired to be writer-in-residence in the farming community of Weyburn, Saskatchewan for one year. This was quite a shock for a boy from the inner city of Toronto, but it turned out to be a good shock. I began to reclaim my writing in a deep way. Though I did miss my writing pals from Toronto. But I was ready for a change.

I’m not sure how geography has had an impact on my writing. There is certainly a lot of space out here – but for quite a while I’ve been working in dense prose-poem forms. However, references to the landscapes I live amidst do slip in. There are two landscapes I inhabit, Saskatchewan (10 months a year) – mostly on the prairie, but occasionally in the boreal forest; and Galiano Island in B.C. (2 months a year). Details from both landscapes occur in my work. Maybe Saskatchewan provides spaciousness and Galiano provides a kind of lyric quality, though I usually strive to escape the lyric and the personal, but that’s another discussion.

3 - Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

Hard to say, though I find many many women writers to be the most interesting poetic thinkers and writers (e.g. Lyn Hejinian, Daphne Marlatt, Kathleen Fraser, Marjorie Perloff, Hilary Clark, Nicole Brossard, Gertrude Stein, etc.) And I have my male heroes (bpNichol, Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Paul Celan, e.e. cummings, etc.)

I don’t know what to say about your ‘race’ question. I’m a Caucasian with English and Scottish ancestry. Whatever influence my genetics bring me, I’m mostly unaware of. I do read poetries of other races, but not consistently.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction 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?

Both. A piece of writing begins with words. Words move into phrases. Phrases accumulate. Eventually a book emerges. I try not to ‘think’ too much while writing, but to follow the language. I try to listen. I ‘think’ harder when I’m not writing. My last two books have become books when, along the way, I discover a concept that guides the book into being.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Public readings are generally enjoyable – a chance to connect with readers – and are essential to selling my books. Meeting enthusiastic readers gives one hope and motivation. As we all know, poetry books and ‘investigative’ books of fiction have a very short (if any) shelf life in most bookstores. I’m sure that moving books into readers’ hands nurtures my creative process by alleviating the logjam of my books that I and my publisher warehouse. More importantly, poetry has an important oral aspect, and readings give poems a chance to be vocalized and heard. As well, as I am a sound poet, reading/performances are essential, because that is primarily where this form is alive.

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?

Yes I have theoretical concerns, though I do not write to actualize a particular theory.

My challenge is: How do I make it new? How do I keep myself off-balance and fresh in my poetic compositions?

I am interested in letting language lead. I try to diminish the ‘I’, the autobiography in my work – a reluctance to write confessional poetry. But that ‘I’ seems to keep turning up, so I look for strategies to escape my ego-indulgences.

I am trying to challenge myself, to let myself be led into word/thought/logic combinations that are outside the daily rhetoric of politics/culture/media. I’m not a pure ‘language writer’, but I embrace some of their concerns.

I often try to work against the received poetics – forms we already know, concern with beauty and polish, with lyric and accessibility; I work against my own received poetics, received from my last book! But I do polish, revise, rethink a work until I feel satisfied or feel that I’ve gone as far as I can.

7 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Working with an outside editor who is able to enter your work on its ground, with understanding is very valuable and affirming, even, and especially, when they find weaknesses or areas that can be strengthened. I have not always been well-served in this area, but certainly in my last six books, editorial input has been essential and has improved the work.

8- After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Getting new work started is always extremely challenging, sometimes discouraging, and certainly difficult. ‘Book-making’ – by which I assume you mean publishing – is easier once you have established a reputation, published some books, and have connections to a press or presses. Publishers who know you will most likely give your work serious consideration. A certain level of anxiety about being published diminishes once you have three or four titles out – though there is always some anxiety about the birth of a work into book form.

9 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I ate a pear this summer (2007), on Galiano Island. It was juicy and sweet. In 1987 I very much enjoyed Roy Kiyooka’s book Pear Tree Pomes, and I chewed it attentively as I was writing a review of it.

10 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Keep your eye on the ball.” (Guy Vanderhaeghe). And to paraphrase advice given to me by bpNichol: Keep writing and your insecurity and envy will diminish, and your work will grow.

11 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I like to move between genres, because it enables me to challenge one form, while giving rest to the other. Because I write non-fiction (arts journalism, book reviews) for dollars, I am able move in and out of this mode by necessity and fairly easily. The move from poetry to fiction is a little more difficult, partly due to my time budget, and partly because my main focus is poetry, and the fiction engine always needs a lot of cranking to get it going. I have published one fiction book in each of the last two decades, so I am due to get at another one soon, to keep up that pace. Writing in other genres strengthens my writing over all.

12 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

At best I write first thing every day – after breakfast for two to three hours. I like to write before other things have cluttered my mind and stolen my fresh energy. But it is difficult to keep this schedule up consistently. I need to take paying work and that often interferes with the daily schedule I prefer. To compensate, I take two or three retreats (each one three days to two weeks, as possible) in a year to provide maximum writing time for a short period.

13 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When my writing gets stalled and even when it’s running, I read. I read poetry, fiction, essays on poetics, ‘consciousness’ magazines, and visit on-line literary resources. And I try to keep scratching words down, making notes, and prodding and listening to the poetic circuit in my brain as best as I can.

14 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My recent book – fluttertongue 4: adagio for the pressured surround continues my exploration of techniques of poetic composition. The previous book – fluttertongue 3: disarray – is a series of prose-poems with an improvisatory feel. The new book – fluttertongue 4 – explodes the prose poem into a spacious book-length meditative single poem. This book was a huge breakthrough for me.

15 - 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?

Both music and visual art influence my work, but in ways I’m not sure I can quantify. I admire contemporary visual art for its diversity and its acceptance of very challenging work that breaks new ground. By comparison, literary art is stuck in the mud. In Canada ‘investigative/experimental’ literary forms are marginalized - not readily understood, written about or validated.

I keep in mind the visual arts as a model for being unafraid to go where few or none have gone before. Recently in California saw a piece ‘Zadra’ from the cycle ‘War Games’ by the fearless Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz. It is so powerful on many levels – tender, violent, injured, aching yet destructive, corporeal yet inert, massive and delicate – so many things at once. I was moved in many directions, many ways at the same time. That such power could be rendered in an inanimate shape and texture was inspiring. Why or how this will stimulate my poetry I cannot say. But it will.

Music – rock, jazz, and experimental – weave in and out of my work as content, rhythm, and inspiration. I often reach for an improvisational method, which is later polished. I greatly admire the thinking of and through music by John Cage, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, and Steve Reich, to name a few. Bob Dylan is a mystery and an idol. Pauline Oliveros inspires. I could go on. I just know that these persons and their musics dwell in me, feed me, and are in my work, whether obvious or not.

Nature is there too: Birds, their awe inspiring intelligence and strength; Flora – ferns, salal, trees, hills, water, moss, moths, mountains, even wheat. We can’t ignore them – they are us!

Led by such forms, I think I try to bring multiplicity, strangeness and boldness into my work. Do I succeed? I don’t really know. Someone else will have to decide.

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

I think I have cited my primary literary heroes in earlier answers. But I must acknowledge bpNichol, a most important influence and an irreplaceable friend and mentor for over ten years, until his passing in 1988. I am also gaining knowledge and respect for some yogic and Buddhist writers and thinkers who I have been exploring in the past few years.

17- What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to record a CD of my solo and ensemble sound poetry work. And I’d like to discover a poetic form I haven’t yet been able to invent.

18 - 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 think I would have enjoyed being a full-time arts journalist specializing in music, visual art and literature – but that’s writing isn’t it? And I do some of that now. When I was about ten, I wanted to be a dentist – thank goodness I outgrew that. In my teens I hoped to be a radio deejay, then in my twenties I wanted to be a film director. If I could have been as brilliant as Bergman or Polanski or Godard, that would have been okay!

19 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I think it was in my genes, though it took me a long time to recognize it. It seemed that I was always writing, and despite other diversions one day I realized that this was what I’d been doing and what I was. I owe an acknowledgement to my high school English Literature teacher Mr. Strebig – first name John, I think – who introduced me to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Gunter Grass, thereby sowing the seeds (slow to fertilize) for my writing self.

20 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Whew – that’s hard. The last great book – probably Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, or Poems for the Millennium Volumes 1 & 2 edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris.

A few books stay with me over time: The Martyrology Books 1-9 (bpNichol), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), Last Poems, Paul Celan (& all his other books), Completed Field Notes and The Hornbooks of Rita K. (Robert Kroetsch), and Translating the Unspeakable (Kathleen Fraser).

The greatest film? Hmmm . . .Apocalypse Now, or Cries and Whispers, or The Piano, and definitely The Blues Brothers.

21 - What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a series of prose poems which are disjunctive, devoid of ‘I’, and tight and loose at the same time. They were begun after reading the American poet Elizabeth Willis. My friend and collaborator Hilary Clark turned me on to Willis, who seemed to spark something in my mind that made me know where to go, or where to start to go, so I leapt from Willis’s words to my own, and it is fun, though uncertain. I think, though I could be wrong, that this work, once it is complete, may be my last engagement with the prose poem for a while.

Thanks rob, for asking all this. I’ve finished your questions, but here’s a final thought:

I strive to keep my writing fresh, to keep the art of poetry vital and confrontational.
The challenge is how to do so in this stale, stifling, suffering, yet stimulating time, and how to uphold my responsibility to the form and honour the work of those poets and writers who have come before me, who have kept the current streaming and made a place for me to enter.

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