Tuesday, July 21, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Craig Poile

Craig Poile grew up in New Brunswick. He earned degrees in journalism and English literature at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he now lives. He works as a technical writer, has been active as a playwright and theatre producer, and co-owns Collected Works Bookstore. His first book of poetry, First Crack, was shortlisted for the 1999 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.

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 didn’t change my life, although I had hoped it would. So I had to find other reasons to write poetry. Now I use whatever reason is handy (which is also how I manage not to write poetry). The recent work is much more tenuous, more fearful for its existence than the poems in that collection 10 years ago.

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

I didn’t like poetry when I started my undergraduate degree, and liked it best by the time I finished. I found it did the best job of helping me figure out how to live, in a compelling and efficient way. It seemed to encompass large issues effortlessly, stealthily.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially 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?

I work very slowly on poems, and usually not at all. Things start off quickly and then devolve into a morass of false leads and clunky phrasing. I pare away the worst of it and am left with the poem. I hope that doesn’t sound flip. I can’t be the only one who works this way.

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?

Poems for me begin with an image or experience that makes my mind teem with phrases, which I guess is a result of the emotion felt when I cradle the experience. I’m never working on a book, just individual poems, although I wouldn’t be adverse to it, if what I was writing or my goals started to take on the shape of a book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love reading my work as it allows me to make a case for the poems. Once I’ve read them, people tend to think my writing isn’t as bad as they had previously thought. This inspired the recent strategy of creating a video clip of me reading for YouTube.

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?

Mostly, I try to worry about technique and what could loosely be called “narrative.” I try not to make things too ship-shape, and to keep the language contemporary and conversational, and hope that all those larger issues will leak in. I think unless you’re totally divorced from the world, you can’t help but address questions relevant to living here and now.

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 haven’t a clue. It’s up to readers to decide what the role of the writer is.

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

I love working with an editor. For someone who works so slowly, it can speed things up considerably. It’s easier for me to react than to act. It also means at least one person has read your work, and I love knowing my work is being read, even if the person is being paid to do it.

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

Early in his career, James Merrill was asked who he was writing for, and he answered, only half-jokingly, that he was writing for the angels. And his mentor warned him, “Be careful, or only the angels will read you.”

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

I’ve given up on play writing. I was good at some aspects of it—creating dialogue, weaving larger issues into the playing out of everyday lives—but no good at things that are essential in theatre, like maintaining narrative tension and interest. The theatre folks were always going on about “stakes.” But I loved working with actors, and loved hearing them read my words. It always made the work sound ten times better. That experience has made me apply myself more creatively and consciously to reading my own poems aloud (I used to sound like I was reading by rote in Sunday School). And I still enjoy using characters in my poems at times, as opposed to an “I” persona.

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 have no writing routine. Usually, when I have exhausted any other pleasurable option, I’ll start to write a poem. If I feel I’m on to something, I just write down snatches here and there and hope I’ll get a stretch of time to visit the project.

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

I am sometimes inspired by reading other poets, but more often I find their achievement intimidating. So I read poets that I could never hope or wish to emulate in style or content, like Gerard Manley Hopkins or George Meredith, or novelists that get my mind buzzing, like Joyce Carol Oates or Martin Amis. Fiction (like music or visual art) stimulates my creative process without posing a direct threat to it.

13 - What do you really want?

To be able to sing like Rosemary Clooney. But I’d settle for Sinatra.

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 directly drawn on music and visual art to inspire my work in the past (see also my response to question 12).

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

I fear it’s unimaginative, but, statistically speaking, I most often return to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, James Merrill and John Ashbery. In terms of fiction, statistically again, the writers I read the most are George Eliot, Joyce Carol Oates and Martin Amis. But I try to sample lots of different authors. Right now, I’m reading Kenneth J. Harvey’s Blackstrap Hawco. He’s a stunning stylish and fearless storyteller.

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

I’d like to write a book-length series of related poems, if I could write one that was any good. Beyond that, I’ve always wanted to visit St. Petersburg, if anyone would like to take me (and find a sitter for my kids while I’m there).

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 have a friend who I’ve known since junior high, and while he was going through medical school, I sent him my reading lists from my English Lit classes. In some genres and eras, his reading of the Greats and Very Goods actually went farther and wider than mine, and he even attempted a novel at one point. Similarly, hearing about his life, I was at times sorely tempted to try to become a doctor.

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

I think I was ready to write myself once I realized that just about anybody can do it. It’s also a pretty convenient and independent way to create. Lori Lansens told me she switched to writing novels from screenwriting because she got to be the writer, director, set designer—everything. And the budget allowed her to do anything. She said she’d never adapt one of her novels because she knows she’d immediately have to cut characters and scenes.

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

I’ll just going to mention what comes to mind: Fire to Fire by Mark Doty (selected poems—is that fair game?) and Magnificent Obsession by Douglas Sirk (which just got its DVD release).

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a few new poems, trying to make sure they don’t turn out too much like the last batch of poems. So often I write a poem and feel I’ve written it before. Every poem I’ve written has fallen short of the potential I’ve envisioned for it, but that feeling of potential comes back afresh with every poem I set out to write. It’s some kind of neurosis, or miracle.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

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