Tuesday, August 09, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Adam Sol

Adam Sol [photo credit: Barbara Stoneham] is the author of three books of poetry, including Jeremiah, Ohio, a novel in poems which was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry; and Crowd of Sounds, which won the award in 2004. He sits on the Poetry Board at House of Anansi Press, and has published fiction, essays and reviews for a variety of publications, including The Globe and Mail, The Forward, Joyland.com and Studies in Jewish American Literature. He is an Associate Professor of English at Laurentian University’s campus in Barrie, Ontario, and lives in Toronto with his wife and three sons.

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

I had a very good year in 2000-2001. I finished my PhD. My first child was born. And my first book came out, after winning one of those shots-in-the-dark first-book contests in the US. It all amounted to a major period of feeling like I was entering a “new stage,” whatever that meant — of my life, my career, etc.  So it was big on its own, but it was part of a constellation of events that was even bigger. 

How does my most recent work compare to my previous? I suppose I’m worrying about different things, struggling with different things, at peace with different things. I tend to write about topics while I’m still deciding how I feel and think about them. Once they resolve themselves — temporarily, no doubt — then I move on to other things. I’d like to think that I’m capable of some things that I wasn’t capable of then, and I had some annoying tendencies that I’m more conscious of now, and so am more able to tone down. It’s hard to say, though, because I read those poems and still recognize the person who wrote them. He had more hair then, though.

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

I was experimenting with fiction, and continue to do so. I learned eventually how to write some academic prose, and some other kinds of non-fiction. But I was leaning towards poetry from when I was a teenager, and the clincher came when I was an undergraduate at Tufts and had Philip Levine as a prof. He sealed the deal for me. In a terrifying, inspiring, and eye-opening 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?

I write my first few drafts by hand. It’s a big step for a poem when it makes it onto my hard drive.  Other than that, the patterns are fleeting and unpredictable.

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?

I’ve done both on this. My last book, Jeremiah, Ohio, was a book project from the beginning, and the first thing I had was the title. It took me ten years to write, but I knew I had a “book” very early on. My other three — my first two, and the one I’m close to completing now — have recurring concerns, but they’ve only emerged as I’ve found myself writing poems that I think of as discrete and separate. It’s only when I start putting them together that I realize, “Oh, I must have been thinking about this.”

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

I enjoy public readings, a lot. I’m more of a performer than I’d like to admit. And I occasionally try new things out to see how they sound, but I don’t think of public readings as having a significant bearing on my creative process. A new poem has to feel like its skin has stabilized in order for me to bring out into the world for others to look at.

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 have multiple theoretical concerns, including a concern about how to answer this question theoretically. The biggest concern I suppose I have these days is, What’s it all for? I’m not the first one to ask this question, of course. Nor will I be the last. I’m just trying to add my little voice to the void.

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?

This is one of the central concerns of my next book, and I’m hesitant to try to be very articulate about it, because as soon as I try to think clearly about it, I will stop writing poems about it.  Stay tuned.

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

Generally very good. I’ve been very lucky with editors, though.

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

I’ve said this one before, but Yusef Komunyakaa told us not to “write what you know. Write what you’re willing to discover.” I resist the tendency to write directly from personal experience as if personal experience is inherently valuable just because it’s “true” or “real.” Discovery, though, especially the kind of discovery that you can bring a reading follow along — that’s interesting. The challenge is how to transmit the sense of discovery or mystery.

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

I wear a lot of hats in my life — professor, administrator, father, grocery buyer, son, point guard, husband, scholar, brother, Jew, board member. The transition from “writer of critical prose” to “writer of poetry” has its complications and rewards, but it’s far from the most complicated one I have to negotiate. I would say that teaching literature, and writing critically about it, have certainly helped shape the way I approach my own writing. And vice versa.

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’m evolving into a sort of seasonal writer, since I have a pretty heavy academic load during the school year.  Fortunately, the university “school year” ends in May, so May and June tend to be my best months. That’s been true for the last few years. I tend to get a lot of my writing done in coffee shops — I like the white noise of a public space, and the fewer personal distractions of email, household chores, etc.

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

Caffeine plus good books. Stir well.

13 - What was your last Hallowe'en costume?

Purim, Judaism’s quasi-Haollowe’en, was in February, so that was more recent, and I shaved myself a bizarro beard and went as the bad guy, Haman. My kids thought my biker beard was hilarious, but my wife made it very clear that the thing would only be allowed on my face for a few hours.

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?

Music is a major influence for me. I listen to it all the time, have pretty eclectic tastes, play a couple of instruments, and think a lot about music when I’m working.

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

Too many to name.

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

Go to Alaska. Dance at my son’s wedding. Write a novel.

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?

A salesman, like maybe in a haberdasher, like a chapeau shop or something.  You know, like, “What size do you wear, sir?” And then you would answer me.

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

I took classical piano for 10 years and thought about being a musician for a while, but at some point I realized that I wasn’t enough of a performer to do it right. It always bothered me that I could practice a piece or song and nail it at home in my room, but that didn’t mean that the next performance, or the next one, or the next one, wouldn’t be a total flop. You can get that with readings too, to a certain extent, but I choose to believe that a person’s literary career isn’t determined by a single performance in the way that a musical performance can be. Not sure I’m actually right about that, but anyway, that’s why I started leaning toward poetry and away from music.

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

Just finished Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women.  Still thinking about it.  Not sure yet if I think it’s brilliant or a load of beautiful hooey. I like feeling this way. And I loved Mark Richard’s memoir, House of Prayer, No. 2. Last film — two “small” films really charmed me recently.  I finally saw David Bezmozgis’ Victoria Day, and really enjoyed it. And Mike Leigh’s Another Year was just superb. Understated, serious, and deeply moving.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m coming close to my next collection of poems. Hopefully it’ll be ready to come out around 2013. No title yet.

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