Sunday, November 18, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Stephen Cain
Stephen Cain is the author of the poetry collections dyslexicon (Coach House, 1998), Torontology (ECW, 2001) and American Standard/ Canada Dry (Coach House, 2005). His first collection of micro-fiction was written with Jay MillAr and appeared as Double Helix (Mercury, 2006).

He was the literary editor of the Queen Street Quarterly from 1998-2005 and a fiction editor at Insomniac Press (2001-2006).

He spends far too much time commuting from High Park to York University, where he teaches Canadian and avant-garde literature.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

To be honest, there were several other things in my life that I’d anticipated for many years before they actually happened that were more rewarding. But yeah, it feels great to see your first book roll off the press and (in the case of dyslexicon) to trim and bind it yourself. Mostly what it showed me was that there’s more to the writing game than getting a book out—there’s waiting for the reviews, doing the promotion and tours, and dealing psychologically with the collective indifference that poetry is met with in our culture.

2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

About 15 years now, broken by a return residency in Kingston from 1999-2000.

I’ve written a book (ironically) titled Torontology, contributed to the uTOpia series, and have always found the city a huge inspiration.

Uh, yeah… but rob, this is crazy, why do you ask about race and gender within a question on geography?

3 - 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?

A poem usually begins with a title and a general idea of the form. Titles, for sure… I’ve still got a huge list of titles for poems that I’ve named, but haven’t written. I usually write in sequences, and usually with ten parts. Once two or three sequences have been composed I start thinking of them as being part of a book project, and consequently start shaping subsequent pieces with that in mind.

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

Definitely part. Almost all of my poems get their trial run at public readings, and I listen closely for audience reaction to help determine whether to keep or kill a piece or sequence.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kindsof questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?


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

I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to be read closely by an intelligent editor and, with all of my books, I’ve been lucky enough to work with several. That being said, I do find it silly to fight about “house style” issues, or debate about whether “a typical reader” (whoever that may be) will “get” a reference or need more explication of form/ process.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Mid-career kinda sucks. No longer the new kid, and decades away from grey power. The writing may be better, and you may have more confidence, but it gets harder to generate excitement among whatever readership you may have with each new publication unless you’re doing something radically different. Hence my attempt to shift towards a poetics of engagement, as well as narrative prose, in the last while.

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

Easily my most hated fruit. Great if you want a pack of sugar with a mouthful of sand. I think I accidentally ate a piece of one about seven years ago when some chichi restaurant decided it would go well hidden in a grilled cheese sandwich.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily givento you directly)?

Read more than you write. Write more than you publish.

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

Moving from criticism to poetry and back happens quite often—they really do feed into each other. Fiction, on the other hand, is a huge challenge, and I continually find I am deeply skeptical of narrative.

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 reserve the hours after 11 p.m. for writing. I usually carry a notebook throughout the day to jot down lines and ideas which gets pulled out at night.

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

In vino veritas.

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

My last two books were collaborations. So it feels nice to relinquish some hubris. Sharing the launch of a book with someone else is surprisingly fun—some pressure is taken away, and there’s someone you can commiserate with immediately.

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?

Did Dave really say that? I thought it was Barthes… maybe Kristeva?

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

Visit France. And Ireland too.

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 younot been a writer?

I don’t have the steadiest of hands, hate giving other people orders, dislike narrative, and almost never watch movies, yet, despite all that, I think I would have been a decent film director in a different life.

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

I think I often do something else than write.

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

Lately it’s more theory and criticism that excite me. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman was inspiring, and perhaps the best critical work I’ve read since Craig Dworkin’s Reading the Illegible.

As I mentioned above, I almost never watch films. The last one I saw was about six months ago: Winterbottom’s adaptation of Tristram Shandy. I thought it was a noble enterprise and a pleasure to watch, although I don’t know if it qualifies as “great.”

20 - What are you currently working on?

A second draft of my novel. A new collection of poetry that I’m calling Post. A pataphysical anthology of early Canadian avant-garde poetry entitled Mortar, and a series of Situationist-style children’s poems called I Can Say Interpellation.

No comments: