Wednesday, July 14, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Robert Earl Stewart

Robert Earl Stewart is a poet, fiction writer and photographer. He received his B.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Windsor, and followed it up with a an M.A. in Contemporary American Fiction from McGill University. His poetry has appeared in journals in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain, including nthposition, This Magazine, Monday Night and the Moosehead Anthology X. His first collection of poetry, Something Burned Along the Southern Border, was published by Mansfield Press in 2009. He lives in Windsor, Ont., with his wife, Jennifer, and their three young children.

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 fist stated ambition was to be a clown that made balloon animals. Then, I wanted to be a baseball player. Then, I wanted to be a writer. Then, for a long time, nothing happened. Then, I started writing seriously when I was about 24. And then, for a long time, I lived in what I think is that standard writer’s paradox, alternating between a really inflated sense of self, and crushing self doubt. The publication of Something Burned Along the Southern Border didn’t so much tip the scale towards one extreme or the other, but helped create some balance in my life. There’s certainly a sense of accomplishment and a lot of excitement around have my first book published, and in some cases, I even felt vindicated. But the first book has allowed me to relax a bit, and refocus—not just in my writing, but personally. Nothing seems quite as urgent as it did even a year ago. It’s like I finally allowed myself to come up for air, which I guess makes me sound very driven. But really, I’m just that guy who wanted to make balloon animals. I haven’t missed the mark by that much.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Actually, I came to fiction first. I’d been the singer and lyricist in a crazy rock band called Elephant, but when we disbanded in 1994, I stopped writing anything that could even be (mis)construed as a poem and it would be 10 years before I wrote anything that actually was poetry. It was in the spring of 1998 while I was living in the McGill Ghetto in Montreal that I started writing short stories—and I wrote a few other’s over the next few years. I’m working on a few right now, actually. In Feb. 2001, I started working on a novel. The manuscript sits at around 700 pages and it is always on my mind, but it gets neglected. Poetry arrived in a big, inspired rush on Aug. 8, 2004—my son Nathanael’s second birthday—when I leapt out of our pool and ran up to my office and sat soaking wet at my computer, writing a poem called “The History of Baseball” which is in my first collection.

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?

Sometimes the project starts long before you realize it’s started. Sometimes a poem hits the page in a matter of minutes with no revisions ever required. Then, there’s ones that go through multiple drafts—5, 12, 17—before I’m satisfied. The ideas of “shape” you raise in the question is an interesting one, because I print up, date and number every version of every poem and I find I’m always squinting at the page, just looking at the way the lines look. I pay a lot of attention to line breaks, and often, it’s more of a visual thing, than a sound thing that shapes my decision.
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?

I like poetry collections as collections—a little bit of everything: rangy, diverse, textured in form, sound, subject…. I’m working on a second book of poems, yes. I have an idea what that might look and sound like, but there’s no overarching theme. I don’t set out to write poems about depression, or heritage, or geography, but sometimes I end up writing about those things—sometimes in the form of people demolishing fruit with knives, or plane crashes in the tundra. I don’t know where these things begin for sure, but I can say some of the poems in Something Burned Along the Southern Border had their germination in off-hand comments made by friends which I frantically wrote down in my notebook; pictures in magazines; poetry exercises put forward by my editor Stuart Ross during one of his famous Poetry Boot Camps; driving to my in-laws place on Lake Erie during a late night thunderstorm.

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

Readings are an enormously important part of the process for me. I wish I could do more readings. My wife and kids bought me a huge suitcase for Christmas so I can go do more readings. They assured me this was the reason.

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 think being this kind of writer would result in me writing an entire book of sestinas about some deeply personal depression. I think what I’m doing when I write poetry is, partly, trying to eradicate any remnants of theoretical concerns that may still be in there from my grad school days. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m just saying I can’t do it. Poetry is fun. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. My agenda is totally opaque, even to me. And in it’s opacity, it’s almost totally transparent. See what I mean?

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?

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

Absolutely essential. Working with an editor is what I’d been waiting for during those years of wondering if what I was doing was any good, and being convinced that I was working on something great—depending on the day and how much coffee I’d had. I loved the entire experience of working with Stuart Ross (Mansfield Press poetry editor). We worked over the phone late at night. Sometimes via Skype while he was in the Kootenays…. I had experience working with editors in a daily newspaper newsroom, and I am a news editor myself now—not so much crossing t’s and dotting i’s, but making decisions about what goes in, what works, what doesn’t. Seeing my poems grow, rewriting some of them wholesale—I learned a tonne, not only about the editing and publication processes, but about my own stuff, during the editing phase.

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

If there’s anything else you can do, any other talent that you might have, do it. Get out of this business entirely.”—Prof. Michael Bristol to a room full of new grad students in the McGill English Dept., Sept. 1997.

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

(See # 14)

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?

No set routine, though my day usually begins with me stumbling around comically for everyone’s amusement (I have sleep apnea).

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

The best cure for a block that I know of, in the short term, is a shower. I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower. A scientist friend confirmed for me that the breaking of water molecules against my body increases oxygen levels in the shower, waking the brain up. To a lesser degree, brushing your teeth will achieve the same thing. On a grander scale, there’s a conservation area in LaSalle, Ontario (just south west of Windsor) called Petit Cote. It’s along the banks of the Detroit River and it’s a mix of old growth forest and marshland and there’s a hawk tower there and I seem to get some good ideas there. The beach at my in-laws place on Lake Erie seems to have some good poetry vibes happening. This café called Taloola here in Windsor… I guess what I’m saying is place--a change of scenery--is what gets me out of a creative funk. Maybe the best thing though, for me, is to always remind myself to be open to poetry—and by “open” I mean observant and receptive like a receiver. It’s happening out there, I just have to be willing to hear/see it—pick up the signal. Some days, I am much more open than on others. And this can also lead to the mistaken belief that everything is a poem. It is not. There are a lot of poetic cul de sacs. I’ve collected those into single pieces though.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Safeguard soap.
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?

Photography plays a big role in poetry. I love cameras. I love taking pictures. I’ve always had an eye for composition, and as mentioned above, the visual appearance of my poems on paper matters to me. For me, photographs are often like poems; poems are often like photographs. That goes for the finished product, and the creative process. When taking a photograph, I have to be open to possibility and whimsy—letting things be as they are in the moment—which is the poetry; when I’m writing a poem, I have to be patient and alert—ready to take an opportunity and get in close to the subject—which is the photography. Reading that, I realize there’s a very sensual, visual thing going on in both. Maybe it’s all about images? Taking moments of composition out of a narrative, or putting moments of composition into a narrative…. I’ve written poems flipping through old National Geographics from the 1970s-1980s and describing what I see in the photos. Film, too. There are some poems in the book based on Werner Herzog films. References to David Lynch, David Mamet and Richard Linklater films. I have this plan to ditch work one day and walk through the Detroit Institute of Art, as open and receptive as I can possibly make myself through meditation.

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

Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen Millhauser, Michael Ondaatje are some of my favourite fiction writers. Albert Goldbarth, Tony Hoagland, David Berman, James Tate and D. Nurkse are some of my favourite poets. I’m becoming a John Ashbery fan. Is this important? Jason Heroux from Kingston—that guy’s poetry leaves me laughing and transfixed at the same time. All these people represent a possibility—a way of doing things that gave me hope.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Publish a work of fiction. Also, I would like to have some kind of crazy adventure in the northern wilderness, involving snow forts, dog sledding, gun play, fist fights, espionage and witty repartee. And pemmican. I read my Farley Mowat as a lad and there has to be pemmican in this thing or it simply won’t work.
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’ve always thought it would be fun to give psychoanalysis a whirl, from the analyst’s side of things. Had I listened to my high school guidance counsellors, I would’ve been a geologist. Had I listened to my parents, I would’ve learned “a nice trade.”

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

It’s sick, but aside from writing being the talent I was blessed with, one of the things that really drove me to write was proving doubters and detractors wrong. Short answer: blessings/rebellion.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

When I finished reading Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End, I knew I’d just read something unlike anything I’d ever read before, with the possible exception of Catch-22, in which I see some structural echoes. That and Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. For films, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is fantastic.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Poems, one at a time. That unfinished novel… when it’s meant to happen, I will finish it. Working on fiction is more time consuming and place sensitive than poetry. I can write a poem sitting in a forest or walking through the grocery store. To work on fiction, I need my computer, my notes, the manuscript. Plus, I have about a dozen short stories in various stages of undress that I need to get serious about.

No comments: