lives now in Cobourg, Ontario. His third collection of poetry Boxing the Compass won the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. That book contained the long poem “Over the Border” which describes his journeys through the United States by Greyhound and Amtrak in the period following 9-11. Greene’s biography of the poet Edith Sitwell has recently been published to widespread acclaim in the UK.
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 very important to me and it gave me the sense of the world of poetry reaching beyond the tip of my pen. My poetry nowadays is, oddly enough, both somewhat more formal and more colloquial. I am possibly more cheerful, but the essential sensibility is not much changed. I am better at concrete descriptions.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
In high school a friend of my was writing poetry modelled on Robert Frost; that got my attention. I have always wanted to write fiction and hope to make a success of it eventually. Most of what I have ever published could be described as “non-fiction” – most recently a fat biography of the English poet Edith Sitwell.
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?
I am extremely slow. Most years I write perhaps 6 or 7 pages of poetry. The long poem “Over the Border” was a steadier project but even there, I wrote a bit of it in 2003 and went back to it in 2006.
Where does poetry 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?
Each poem tends to be a separate undertaking, so the books are built up like a reef.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am a pretty good reader, but no, I don’t place a high value on the public reading of poetry. But sometimes I can’t hack the atmosphere of readings, especially the open mike – this is what I call my nut allergy.
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 started my university career as a critical theorist, but lost sympathy with it. My work is an odd mix of religious vision, gags, social satire, and elegies. Go figure.
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?
Writers do a number of things – imagine selves we will never get to, remember goodness that is passing away, dismantle the present – essentially you resolve your experiences into laughter and silence. I suppose a good writer is like a Shakespearian clown – one who makes a big show of being silly and separate, but is in fact quarrelling with the culture.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find being edited essential. Especially with poetry, you always need the other set of eyes.
What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Not quite an answer to the question you have asked, but how about this: Twenty-five years ago, the British poet Peter Levi thought there was something odd about me. Usually young poets, he said, develop technique and wait for the voice. In my case, I had a very clear voice but no technique. I had to work on that. It occurs to me now that the woods are full of capable young poets who have absolutely nothing to say. They are smooth, smooth, smooth. They remind me of pianists who will not lean in to the keyboard – as an old Russian virtuoso put it to my stepdaughter, “You have to play inside keys-- you play on surface -- like snake!” I think young poets should take on reckless experiences – go to Haiti, go to Vegas, go to Baffin Island, go to Nascar. Get away from coffee houses. Stop prating about whatever is the latest flutter in poetry journals. They should look for strange experiences that will help them find the measure of themselves – help them find the singularity of their own minds.
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It seems normal to take on different challenges. It is all pleasurable.
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 such different projects that my daily schedule is varying – also for half the year I am teaching.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
A handful of poets and poetical novelists – most often, actually, the work of Peter Levi. I don’t write like him at all, but Al Moritz can have that effect on me sometimes.
What fragrance reminds you of home?
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 am not particularly musical, but there is lots about music in my writing. I come from a family of pianists and politicians. I don’t know exactly what effect it has had on my poetry, but my mother is a painter, and I am sure there is an influence there.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There are lots of odd influences, Thomas Wolfe, T. S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Edith Sitwell, Sacheverell Sitwell, John Steinbeck, Roy Fuller, R. S. Thomas, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, John Masefield, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Yeats, Heaney, H.D. How about the novels of Patrick O’Brian?
What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to write a good novel.
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 had a pretty odd life, could have been a priest, a lawyer, a politician. Who knows?
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was the thing I was best at and most passionate about.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. A little behind the times, I would say the last great film I saw was, No Country for Old Men.
What are you currently working on?
A novel to be titled The Rum Jar – it may not work out. We will see.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;