Friday, June 12, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Matthew Tierney

Matthew Tierney’s second book, The Hayflick Limit, came out with Coach House Books in spring 2009. He is a recipient of a K.M. Hunter Award for Literature, and won 1st and 2nd place in This Magazine’s 2005 Great Canadian Literary Hunt. His poems have appeared in journals and magazines across Canada, including Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead and Eye Weekly, among others. He lives in Toronto.

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 was a long time coming, written off and on over nearly ten years. I was very close to it and both happy and relieved see it into print. Publication itself was a measure of success.
Suddenly, the second book became a “when” not “if”. All that worry about getting published shifted into how it’d be received.

As to how it compares: The first book was written by the poet I wanted to be. The second was written by the poet I am. That make any sense?

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I came to poetry through fiction. I blame my friends at the time. Steve McOrmond, David Seymour, Andy Weaver. A bad lot.
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?

Starting is not the problem. Finishing is.
Poems come from notes or not depending on the scope, the specifics, my mood, my energy level. Research can be very conspicuous in a poem, like the tics of bad acting. I’m very conscious of this because I tend write about stuff I don’t really understand.

Ideally, I’d like to just know everything so I wouldn’t have to do any research.

That sounds fatuous. It is. But I’m trying more and more to have the research direct me rather than the reverse. Earn the knowledge. Let the poem come out of whatever happens to be in my head.

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?

The poem begins in a complicated place, a miasma of guilt and ambition and intellectual curiosity. Though sometimes it’s just rainy out and I feel like writing. Who knows how things get done?

Poems fall into a book by default. I’m usually interested in one thing for a long time, and the poems tend to flock together, probably for protection.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings don’t play a part in my process. They’re enjoyable though. I’m a wreck heading into them, but they turn out all right. And there’s usually a pint or two involved.

Also, it’s one arena where humour in a poem is welcome. Then it’s smacked on the nose and sent back to the corner where it belongs.

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?

I’ve been toying with the idea that all poems are failures. The good ones are, anyway.

I don’t mean a failure of language, though that’s always the pink elephant in the room.
Something more particular about the kind of failure. It’s necessary for poetry to fail to be prose, for one. Or even to fail to make “sense.” Like the way quantum physics breaks from classical. Following a logic of its own creation—which is tautological, now that I think about it.
These are some of the answers I’m attempting to question with my work.

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?

The role of the writer should be to write good poems. Even if you write fiction. Okay, a good novel might count. But nothing over 300 pages.

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


The editor-writer relationship exists to challenge your work. You have to respond to that challenge intelligently and seriously. Sometimes it’s frustrating, even deflating, though it’s always worth it to make the poem better.

I can’t imagine being confident enough to bring the poems into the public sphere all by myself. Doubt is good for a writer. It makes you listen.

I’m lucky to have good friends who happen to be good editors, and who also value what I do. And Kevin Connolly, who edited my new collection, was a complete gentleman the whole time.

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

Stay in school.

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?

I approach my writing like a serial monogamist approaches a relationship. I have stretches of fairly strict routine, writing generally post-coffee to suppertime on days when I can.

Then I have stretches of nothing. No flings, no flirting. I really let myself go.

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

My writing doesn’t really work like that. I have plenty of ideas to get to. It’s just laziness and lack of time. As soon as I snap-to and get enough scratch together, I’m good to go.

12 - What fairy tale character do you resonate with most?


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?

The Hayflick Limit was chiefly informed by various branches of science, some math and economics. This was a conscious effort to sharpen my focus and a way to reforge some neural paths (I began my undergraduate as a physics major).

The scientific gaze sometimes chafes against sensory experience. We “see” a coherence in the world that isn’t really there. I wanted to exploit this, create a hyper-aware poem. You don’t need to know the biochemistry involved when you walk across a room, but what if you did? What if your head had access to this knowledge as easily as you do the visible spectrum or sound waves?

Muldoon would say that we reconstruct the consciousness behind a poem in order to read it. I say, make the ride as interesting as you can.

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

I lean on those non-fiction writers who do all the hard work for me. You know, the ones who do ten years of field research and then condense it into a short book that I can digest between naps.
Also, poets. Joseph Brodsky, August Kleinzahler. Jo Shapcott. Carol Ann Duffy, Tomas Tranströmer. Michael Hofmann. Closer to home, David McGimpsey, the aforementioned Kevin Connolly (“Chain:” from Drift is the poem I’m forever trying to write). I have friends that I think are doing some great work that I won’t list for fear of accidentally leaving someone out.

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

Suit up for the Leafs on a Saturday night.

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?

I’m always moaning about how I should’ve stuck out the science degree. When I go on vacation, I inevitably end up at places like MIT or the Santa Fe Institute, walking around the facilities, pretending I’m hard at work inventing the math to test out a wild theory. Then I go buy a T-shirt at the gift shop.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not sure. By age ten, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Nobody seemed to think that was a bad idea.

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

Films can frustrate me. More specifically, the third acts of films frustrate me. I admit I don’t put much effort into seeking out the good ones—sometimes I’d just rather be laughing at Will Ferrell.
TV, though—finishing up the Deadwood series right now. Got Damages on deck. I crave these long, unfolding narratives.

19 - What are you currently working on?

Just completed a winter’s worth of edits on the book. I’m gearing up for a tour out west with Jeramy Dodds in April. Then I’ve promised myself I’m going to sit down and write some more poems.

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