Saturday, September 05, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Camille Martin

Camille Martin, a Toronto poet and collage artist, is the author of Sonnets (Shearsman Books, forthcoming) and Codes of Public Sleep (BookThug, 2007), in addition to several earlier chapbooks. Her work has been internationally published in journals. Her current work-in-progress is a poetic sequence based on her Acadian/Cajun heritage. She earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of New Orleans and a Ph.D. in English at Louisiana State University. Currently she teaches writing and literature at Ryerson University. She has a website at and a blog at

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 chapbook, magnus loop, was a turning point for me. I loved the care that Charles Alexander of Chax Press put into the book, which had original art inside and on the cover, and a hand-sewn spine. The little book felt so tangible and tactile. Publishing it made me feel as though I were joining a conversation of poets.

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

Music was my first love. I trained as a classical pianist from an early age and studied it seriously until about my mid-twenties. Although I decided not to earn my bread in music, the music never left me—I can’t help but listen to music with the ears of a musician. I’ve always been drawn to the blending of arts, and when I started writing poetry, I needed for the words to express music: tonal variety, phrasing, melodic motifs, rhythm. In its aural quality, you could say that poetry is an extension of the music in my head. So far, I haven’t really felt the urge to write fiction. I needed the density and intensity of poetry to express what I couldn’t express in any other way.

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?

Because of the nature of my work, I have periods of time when I’m swamped with marking papers and other times when I have more down time. So my writing is necessarily concentrated during those more relaxed periods. As to the second question, I’m going to crib Joel Dailey’s twist on Allen Ginsberg’s maxim: “First thought, best thought. Unless it’s not.” Sometimes a poem will emerge fairly quickly, and I’ll do very little revising. Other poems will undergo a revision process, sometimes over a period of several months, as I return to a manuscript with fresh eyes to see what I want to tweak. It’s safe to say that with some work I’m an eternal tinkerer. I think Lorraine Neidecker was, also; she was constantly changing her older work. A nightmare for her future editors.

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?

Both. My first book, Codes of Public Sleep, is a collection of discrete lyrics (though there are a couple of sequences within the book). My sonnets project was intended to come together as a book, yet there’s a lot of variety of approaches and styles among the sonnets, from crunchy and disjunctive to very accessible.

As to the first question, a poem for me can begin with a single word or phrase. A sonnet that turned into a longing for spring began with the word “ova.” Another sonnet began with the phrase “blind homunculus,” an image that came to me as a kind of thought experiment to remind me of the “blindness” of humans: our eyes don’t literally see faithfully and exactly what is out there; they are chemical and neurological processes that are extraordinarily fallible. That image was the thread that led to an address to the arrogant little homunculus in our heads that fancies himself (for some reason, the homunculus is always envisioned as male) in control of our thoughts, our bodies, our perceptions. Cognition is a lot less centralized than we sometimes imagine.

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

The aural element is important to my work. Some who have read my work say that it cries out to be read aloud. For me, reading aloud and hearing others read adds a dimension to poetry: the expressiveness of the voice, the personality of the reader, the timing, the pauses, and the audience’s reaction as well. I remember years ago hearing Rae Armantrout read in New York. I had only read her poetry on the page and didn’t connect with it. But hearing her read was a revelation. The only way that I can describe it is that it sounded like waves of punchlines.

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?

My dissertation dealt largely with the conjunction of cognitive science and contemporary innovative poetry. My own synesthetic experience as a child (“seeing” colours in response to musical tones) led me to explore the neurological origins of synesthesia. The 1990s is known (among neuroscientists, anyway) as the decade of the brain, because neuroscientific research took a giant leap and previously-held assumptions about cognition were being radically revised. I became interested in this research in relation to ways in which poetry expresses and enacts ideas of the self, memory, perception, and so forth. I think that my poetry has been greatly affected by such thinking. Also, through the work of Leslie Scalapino I was introduced to the writings of the ancient Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and his radical deconstruction of categories and essences has also had a profound effect on 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?

I can only speak for myself. I don’t see being a poet as playing a role. It’s a continually unfolding process, like life.

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

I greatly appreciate other opinions. Sometimes I grow too familiar with my work so that it becomes difficult for me to read it objectively and decide on revisions. Margaret Christakos had some brilliant suggestions for my first book, Codes of Public Sleep.

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

I learned a lot from attending Al-Anon meetings when I was dealing with an alcoholic in my life. From that experience I learned the value of emotional detachment from the harmful actions of others and of being at peace with myself as I am.

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

As to moving between genres within poetry, I remember Peter Gizzi saying that as much as he wanted to write a book-length poem or poetic sequence, he always seemed to gravitate to the short lyric. I have felt the same attraction to the short lyric, but my most recent project involves breaking out of that habit and exploring the possibilities of a poetic sequence based on my heritage. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. My need to explore that subject in a long poem following my father’s death created the means for me to do it.

I’ve always enjoyed writing analytical prose about literature and art. Recently I had the idea to satisfy my need to write about poetry through a blog I set up:

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 don’t have a set routine. I write when I feel the urge.. A typical day devoted to writing might begin with drinking coffee, piling my favourite books on the bed, propping myself up with pillows, and reading.

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

It varies. I find inspiration in the writing of other poets – too numerous for me to even attempt to list here. I find that traveling stimulates me to write—not only being in a new place but also the traveling itself—being in a train, car, subway, or bus, but preferably train, watching the changing scenery. My most memorable writing experiences combine the two—traveling by train with my favourite books of poetry.

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

I’m drawn to the “wise fools” of literature. When I was a child, I couldn’t get enough of the story of Hans Clodhopper. An example in literature that I love is The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.

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?

Books from billboards, the view from inside a train, a memory of an ice cream truck, the hum of my refrigerator right now, the neurons incessantly firing in my brain, the documentary about the sense of smell that I saw last night, the buttered toast I had for breakfast, the dream I had last night about Obama handing me a suitcase of letters. Books from writing responses to these questions and listening to my brain making associations—buttered toast to synesthesia, refrigerator hum to minimalist music, a suitcase of letters to lighting a cigarette under a ceiling fan, ice cream truck to making love on the levee of the Mississippi River. And books from books, too. In no particular order.

Fields that have influenced me: music (I trained for many years as a classical pianist), cognitive science (see above), and visual art (I’ve always been interested in the visual arts, and for the past several years I’ve been making collages).

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

Science fiction, cognitive science, critical theory. I’m also hooked on documentary films and avant-garde films, a great many of which are available online.

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

Ride the train from Halifax to Vancouver.

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?

Being an engineer on an old steam locomotive.

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

Just as I couldn’t choose my gender, I couldn’t choose not to write. Poetry was a siren song to the already immersed.

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

Last great book: Rae Armantrout’s Versed.

Last great film: Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World

20 - What are you currently working on?

My new book, Sonnets, will appear in a few months from Shearsman Books. The sonnets feel like a culmination of my exploration of the short lyric. I still write sonnets occasionally. But my recent project is radically different: a poetic sequence based on my Cajun / Acadian heritage. I never thought that I would write something so close to the autobiographical and historical, but I feel compelled to the subject since my father died recently. He was a genealogy buff and did a lot of work on the Martin ancestry. Although I never found that project close to my interests, I found myself thinking more and more about the creation of history and the mythologizing of history, the confabulation that is history and that suits our own need to narrativize our lives. I took the Evangeline myth as a starting point because so many Cajuns in Louisiana are convinced that she was a real person. They needed for her to exist, and it fascinated me to see the lengths to which people would go to stretch history in order to believe that they were actually related to her family. Evangeline was everywhere in my hometown in Louisiana, and when I finally did the “pilgrimage” to Nova Scotia last summer, I saw her again and again. Evangeline was the springboard for my thinking about the meaning of my ancestry to me. It meant something very different for my father, for whom the project became a kind of ancestor worship. I wanted to explore the ways in which humans create history.

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