James Lindsay is co-owner of Pleasence Records. His first collection of poetry, Our Inland Sea, has recently been published by Wolsak & Wynn's Buckrider 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?
Finishing my first book was proof to myself that I could do it. Now I feel that if I can do it once, I can do it again. The oldest poem in it was written around 12 years ago. I think it was the one of the first successful pieces I ever wrote, but obviously I’ve changed a lot since then. Most of Our Inland Sea was trying to find a style that worked for me. Moving forward, I’m trying to take what I did, push it further and strip away the old scaffolding I’ve come to rely on.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My attraction to poetry started with, and still is, because I find it challenging. I remember looking at a poem and being mystified by the thing. Why these words? Why this form? Why not just say what you had to say as straightforward as possible? These are still the questions I ask myself when I read poetry. And once I started to write it myself, once I saw that I could do it as well I wanted to try to become better at it, and then I started to see it as a craft.
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’m constantly taking notes: words, sentences, quotes. At a certain point I begin to notice a theme of the recent note taking and then I sit down to really write. It’s not like I’m just putting the scraps together, but much of the tone and source material comes from my notes. There’s this initial blast of writing where I get much of the body of the thing done, then it’s revise, revise, revise for up to two weeks or so after. But I’m always revisiting them. They’re never really finished.
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?
My experience writing Our Inland Sea was much like writing a individual poem. I had all these pieces and began to see similarities in them. I used to be afraid to repeat myself, as if every new piece had to attempt to be completely original. But once I got over that, I embraced the repetition I was seeing and I steered it towards an overall theme for the book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy readings. I’m nervous every time, but I enjoy it. A big part of writing Our Inland Sea came when I read at the Pivot series. I read a series of new poems I had been working on that were more humorous and socially focused than what I had previously been doing and I got a very positive reaction, laughs in all the right places. That affirmation helped me to realize where I wanted the collection to go.
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 want my poetry to be more concerned with general social aspects than uniquely individual ones. Or more specifically how people see themselves in larger groups, how we identify. I want to try to show personal psychology, but using the group’s language. I try to have a friction of nature rubbing up against culture, playing with ideas of what’s “natural.”
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 don’t think writers are necessarily different from other artists. Writing can be for pure entertainment; it can enlighten; it can be for personal reasons; for profit; it can be public and it can be privet. The difference is that writing is very practical and almost everyone does to some extent. Making a shopping list is writing, a different kind of writing, but its still writing. So, for writers at least, I think the role should be to try to take to push yourself, to make it stronger, something beyond the shopping list. No matter what you write.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My editor, Paul Vermeersch, was a big part of the writing of Our Inland Sea. I’m an easy edit, I like to have criticism, it gives me something to work with. By the time Paul got to see much of the first draft manuscript, it was all over the place. But the more we talked about the poems, the more I began to see what this book was all about. It’s not that he wrote any of it, but he was great at pointing out problems. He always had suggestions, but never forced them. It was more like, “Here’s you problem, fix it.” And I’d go back full of energy, excited to try and find a solution. I love the editing process as much as I like the initial inspiration. At times like those, poems feel like privet riddles that need solving.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“If you want to be a writer, write.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
To be honest, I find all creative writing difficult. It rarely comes easy to me, but that’s also the appeal. That said, I find myself having to concentrate much harder with prose in order for what I want to say to be clear. I don’t often get the opportunity to write prose, but I welcome it when it comes along as I find the struggle tends to strengthen my writing overall.
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 could say I wrote everyday, but I don’t. I read everyday, and like I said, I’m constantly jotting down fragments for later use, but I don’t always have the time to seriously get down to it. But when I do, I start early in the morning, read a bit first while drinking coffee, look at recent notes and jots then start going at it. If I’m revising, that can happen any time of day, but often at night.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When things slow down, when I’m not a fan of what I’m producing, I just keep going and try to put any anxiety about it aside. I think to myself, “OK, today is going to be about quantity, not quality.” This helps me explore things I might not have if I was working on something specific, so the next time I’ll have some more stuff to start with.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cooking. Something roasting in the oven. Curry, cumin, garlic, rosemary. My wife’s pies or banana bread.
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 and visual art both play a part in my poetry, but not necessarily in a direct way. I tend not to write as much about what the piece of music or art means as what was behind the making of it and how it effects. For example, at the moment I’m trying to write about a Goya painting called “The Duchess of Alba and La Beata” that depicts his muse, María Cayetana de Silva, lurching out of the darkness at one of her maids, scaring the crap out of her, as a prank. What really connected with me was that they would have had to plan this in advance, Goya and the Duchess lurking in the shadows and waiting for the maid to walk by. I suppose I liked the implied twisted intimacy between the two rumored lovers more than I actually liked the painting itself.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
That’s a tough one. I feel like my influences are constantly changing. I’ve worked in bookstores for the last ten years, so I’m very privileged to have had a constant stream of new writers exposed to me. I tend to fall for particular writers and read as much as can of them before moving on to something new and rarely revisiting them after, or feeling less excited about them if I do. But, at various times, I’ve been highly influenced by Gordon Lish, Louise Gluck, Donald Antrim, Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, John Ashbery, and Jack Spicer.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to say write a novel, but I also feel superstitious that if I do, it’ll never happen. It’s kind of like saying you want to climb Everest because you enjoy hiking. It’s also one of those clichés people say, “I’m working on my novel.” But I love novels and what they’re capable of. And maybe, like poetry, it’s worth trying to do just for the sake of doing 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?
If not for writing, if I didn’t have that motivation, I’d probably still be working jobs that took all of my energy and left me with no time to focus on writing. (I’ve always been enamored by writers who have a full time job, a family, and still are able to find time and energy for creativity.) I’d like to think I’d still be reading a lot, as I did then, but I also think that it was my drive to write, and my involvement in the Toronto literary community that kept me hungry to read as much as possible.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’ve always been interested in books, music and art, but I have distinct memories of being praised for writing at a very young age. So I’ve always thought writing as something that I could do, a realistic possibility, opposed to, say, taking up an instrument, which I’ve never had much inclination towards.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved Mary Jo Bang’s liberal translation of The Inferno. She embraces the comedy and updates it to a semi-modern farce. Eric Cartman, Saddam Hussein and Dick Cheney all make appearances in hell and at the end of each canto there are meticulous notes on the changes she made and the historical significance of Dante’s references. I tend to love anything that can simultaneously be that silly and serious.
I watch a lot of horror movies, but few are ever able to extend past the restrictions of the genre. The Dutch film Borgman, while still having good scares and creepiness, was also not afraid to be intelligent and psychological, but so subtlety that you never notice that all of the sudden you’re watching an art house movie. Much like It Follows and The Babadook, which I also adored, the evil in it is not something I’ve ever seen before, which was refreshing considering most of horror’s reliance on the old vampire-werewolf-ghost-zombie-murderer bad guys. All three also resist the easy plot device of the origin story, which always drains the mystery of the film.
20 - What are you currently working on?
After being very busy for the last two and a half months or so, I finally have some time to start writing again and I want to take full advantage of it. When I look back at my first book now I see parts that interest me more than others. I want to start exploring those parts more, seeing where I can push them to.