Monday, September 14, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Angela Szczepaniak

Congenitally ornithophobic, Angela Szczepaniak is neckdeep in a doctoral dissertation on innovative poetry, dysfunctional detective fiction, and comic books. In addition to publishing poetry and critical essays, and working as a poetry editor for Redwood Coast Press, she participated in LOCCAL’s first hygiene themed poetry-art project—traces of her visual poetry can still be found on placards in some of the finest public restrooms in Seattle. Her work has since surfaced in Belgian art galleries, alongside some top shelf vispoets as part of the 2009 Infusoria exhibit. At the moment, she lives in Toronto, where she increasingly thinks about being ravaged by time’s withered claw. Her first book is a novel-in-poems, called Unisex Love Poems (DC Books).

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It’s still kind of new, so it hasn’t made much of a material difference yet. It’s pretty cool to have a spine.

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

I didn’t come to poetry first… it came to me after a long time dodging it. I’d been taught in elementary and highschool that poetry was about wrenching emotion and confession, which I had an active, hostile lack of interest in reading or writing. When I finally discovered that it could be about things like form and language, and that it could even have a sense of humour I reconsidered.

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?

Fits and starts. I spend a long time writing small things, collecting phrases and titles, names, images, rhythms. Then when I have a sense of what I’m looking for in a larger project, or how small pieces fit into something larger, it’s very fast.

Notes: Years worth. I’m all about outlines, character sketches, lists of connections and fault lines between things… I never follow the outlines like a map (I rarely even look at them again), but I find it essential to spend a long time drafting the cartography, until I get comfortable enough with my material that I can just write the work, instead of around it.

I’m a compulsive reviser. I’ll rewrite something 20, 30 times after I initially arrive at a piece that seems “whole.” I still revise the published book—the copy I do readings from is full of penciled-in and crossed-out words and lines. I don’t really think of anything as permanent, or that publication would be indelible. I don’t see why writing shouldn’t keep changing for new contexts, especially if parts of it feel flat or go off eventually.

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?

Kind of both—each “book” is different and doesn’t follow a prescriptive plan, but constellations of connections that seem to add up to longer things often form fairly early on. With Unisex Love Poems I had about 2 or 3 pieces from most of the major “genres” before I realized that I wanted them to commingle and be intercut throughout the same book, instead of each being its own separate venture. The thing I’m working on now has very few completed pieces, but I have an idea of how small things (whatever they turn out to be) will fit together eventually.

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

I think of readings and writing as separate performances, so there’s not that much crossover for me. I like live performances of all kinds. Even when I’m the “live” one in question—I’m a really neurotic reader, but I enjoy getting an immediate response and I like the interaction with an audience. I like the idea of tuning pieces to actual present audiences.

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?

Yeah, lots. I’m half academic and all cerebral, even about really regular things like cereal and pop songs. My specific concerns shift depending on the work I’m doing, of course. I’m not sure what the current questions are in any collective sense, and I don’t think I was trying to answer anything with ULP (that seems a bit presumptuous)… Just to think about the qualities of language and the possibilities for different kinds of reading experiences they engender—how we use words, what kind of effects and implications they may have (especially the uncontrollable, visceral ones), what happens when they’re (mis)used. I like the way words fit together sonically and visually… I love the gap between what people say and what they mean. And the leaps an interlocutor has to make to participate in a conversation. I’m a sucker for idiom, but non sequiturs are really the way to my heart.

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’m not sure what an artist’s role is—art seems to be more important to artists than to anyone else, unfortunately. But if I got to place the job ad:

The world at large urgently seeks diverse artists working in any medium to fill countless positions. Tasks include puncturing holes in our social/institutional pipes, to create leaks and spurts that stimulate new ways of thinking (not to offer something concrete to think about… but to open up new avenues and processes for thinking). No plumbing or roadworks experience required. Applicants with a sharp sense of humour will have a distinct advantage.

It would probably be more useful to run ads for audiences, though.

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

I love it. It’s a challenging, invigorating process that draws the best from the work. I should probably qualify that—so far I’ve only worked with the most amazing, intuitive editors. I keep thinking that my luck has to run out sooner or later, and then it would be a torturous, useless process. But then, I suppose, I’d still find the experience with a good editor essential, I just wouldn’t be having one.

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

“The problem is that all your bank statements are from the present. You really should try to secure bank statements from the future.”

—from the Bureaucrat I dealt with repeatedly while trying to renew my visa to study in the U.S.

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

I don’t really separate them when I’m writing. I just write whatever seems to work at a given time. Pick-and-mix forms is central to what I do—I guess it’s called “hybrid genre” or something like that, which requires that kind of orchestration of lots of genres and forms working together (or against each other) in some (hopefully) interesting, productive way. The appeal—I think it’s the exuberance of disruption. Having to shift from one form to another keeps the writing lively. It’s the same hyperactive engagement I look for as a reader.

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 wish I had one! I make lists and schedules all the time, which is more a part of the routine than actually following them. I’m very chaotic. When I’m in the rhythm of something, working toward completion (after all the notes), especially when I have an outside deadline, I write to the exclusion of everything else—eating, sleeping… I often “sleepwork”—I go to bed thinking of what I have to do the next day, then when I get up and go to start on it, I find that I’ve already done it in my sleep. Mostly when I’m not tunnel-visioned like that, I just avoid writing—by eating, sleeping, reading, watching movies, doing jobs that pay, making notes for writing later…

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

See #14-15.

For ULP British sketch comedy figured prominently.

13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

Hendrix. She’s the totally rad, unfathomably aged cat who lives with me now (24, in human years).

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?

Everything. I wrote a 5 page section of ULP, triggered by a sequence of images/colours and sounds in a Dentyne Ice commercial (it’s not about the product at all, it just made me think in a particular kind of register for a while). As for things I’m less embarrassed to admit: music (I have favourites, but really, all kinds can be a catalyst for writing—rhythm and sound are important in music and words); science—especially medicine and how the body works (or allegedly works. Or doesn’t); visual art—especially comics, but I also find a few painters and toy designers influential; furniture—I like Alain Bélanger’s sense of form, for instance; architecture; and comedy—for contemporary stuff, I find British sketch comedy hits the right pitch at the moment, but also vaudeville and silent comedies (Buster Keaton, say) and Howard Hawks’ doubletime dialogue.

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

I’m not sure who would be evident as direct influences on my writing, but I like David Antin, bpNichol, Gertrude Stein, Steve McCaffery, Lisa Robertson, Jason Camlot, Lyn Hejinian, Karen Mac Cormack, Ann Quin, Shelley Jackson, Christina Milletti, Dashiell Hammett, Charles Willeford, George F. WalkerFranz Kafka, Samuel Beckett… so many more. I’m a huge fan of George Herriman, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Daniel ClowesChris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Matt Berry, The League of Gentlemen.

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

Have my wisdom teeth extracted. They’ve been a real menace to my alignment and dental kerning for years, and they still feel sort of alien in there, yet for some reason I just keep avoiding it.

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?

Cryptozoologist. But that probably takes more optimism than I’m usually equipped with. So probably a filmmaker is more likely. Maybe a musician.

I’ve done lots of jobs to finance the writing and student life—baker, bus mechanic, science clown… They all posed a serious threat of becoming more permanent occupations.

I took a career placement test in highschool that said I was ideally suited to be a mime or a puppeteer. At the time I thought it was ridiculous (I mean just that a multiple choice test could turn up such nuanced results), but now I think they were probably kind of right.

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

Mostly I just like doing it—I love language and just can’t help myself. I like the hours. And I don’t have to sit at a desk.

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

I’m not sure how you mean “great”—that feels like a trap. I’ve read a lot of amazing things lately, but I especially love Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns and Chris Ware’s Building Stories and his newest ACME Novelty Library issue.

And one film? I’m bad at making decisions like that, even if limited by chronology. Some of my favourites are: The Perfect Human, Road House (the 1948 one, completely unrelated to Patrick Swayze), Scarlet Street, O Lucky Man, Freaks. Oh, and City of Women. Sherlock Jr. And the opening scene of Peter Ibbetson.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m doing some new cartoons. And a detective novular-poetry book about a crumbling hotel lounge variety show. It has a dodo in it. Or, more like out of it. Conspicuously not in it.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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