Dean Steadman’s work has been published in Canadian journals and e-zines, as well as in the anthology Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry, edited by Susan McMaster (Scrivener Press, 2010). He is the author of two chapbooks: Portrait w/tulips (Leaf Editions, 2013), and Worm's Saving Day (AngelHousePress, 2015). He was a finalist in the 2011 Ottawa Book Awards for his poetry collection, their blue drowning (Frog Hollow Press, 2010). His second poetry collection, Après Satie – For Two and Four Hands, was published by Brick Books in the spring of 2016.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The publication of my first book, their blue drowning, gave me confidence in my talents as a poet. Up to that point, I had had some small success in getting individual poems published in magazines and journals, but the rejection letters far exceeded the letters of acceptance. A bit demoralizing. However, the publication of their blue drowning changed that for me and gave me reason to continue to develop the voice that was beginning to emerge in my poetry. The book received very little critical attention, although I am proud to say that it was nominated for the 2011 Ottawa Book Award for English fiction. That was as good as a win for me and, with that encouragement, I went on to write two chapbooks and the collection, Après Satie – For Two and Four Hands. I’ve been told by fellow writers that Après Satie marks a new stage in my development as a poet. I see it as a departure from the big-picture, mythological worldview of their blue drowning. It’s much more surreal in tone and heavily flavoured with a Dada sensibility that tends to give the collection a feeling of the absurd.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m an avid reader of novels and short-stories. I probably read more prose fiction than I do poetry and almost everything I write has a narrative flow to it. But it’s the concentration and precision of poetry as a literary form that attracts and challenges me as a writer. Poetry allows me to explore the same themes that I would as a novelist or short-story writer but, as an art form, it imposes constraints in terms of time and space. These constraints push me beyond the linear continuity of most prose fiction into a creative discipline where the devices and techniques at my disposal work to impede normal perceptions and disrupt habitual ways of thinking and seeing. The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky wrote: “[A]rt exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” I think that this is particularly true of poetry, or, at least, the kind of poetry that interests me. Certainly, prose fiction can achieve these same results, as novelists such as Elizabeth Smart and Michael Ondaatje have skillfully demonstrated. But even then we tend to think of such works as “poetic prose” which for me is recognition of poetry’s inherent ability to make “strange and wonderful,” to use Aristotle’s description of poetic language.
3 - 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’ve been interested for some time now in studying the characteristics that distinguish poetry from prose fiction, and to some extent this has spilled over into my poetry. I think such an investigation is essential to formulating a personal poetics. The collection, their blue drowning, was in some ways an exercise in exploring this topic. There I used a prose “chapeau” with each poem to make the storyline more accessible to the reader, often pushing the prose as close to poetry as possible and, likewise, letting the poetry drift away from metaphor into something closer to the denotative language common to much prose fiction. Après Satie is also concerned with poetic language and with what distinguishes it from denotative language. A few years back I started delving into the different schools of literary theory and my studies have provided me with a wealth of insight into the functions and functioning of language. Some of the poems in Après Satie give poetic expression to the linguistic theories I’ve come across, particularly those advanced by the literary formalists and the structuralists of the last century.
4 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with talented editors has been my most positive learning experience as an emerging poet. I came to writing poetry in earnest in my late fifties after retiring from a lengthy career in areas of international trade policy with the federal government. I had a lot to learn quickly and benefited greatly from two sessions of the Banff Wired Writing Program where I had the very good fortune to work on early versions of their blue drowning, first with Don Domanski and then with Stan Dragland as my mentors. I learned more about poetry from those two than I could even begin to describe and the editorial advice they provided resulted in the manuscript being accepted for publication by Frog Hollow Press. At Frog Hollow, I worked with Shane Neilson to fine tune some of the poems in ways that never would have occurred to me without his assistance. Stan was also very instrumental in helping me to prepare Après Satie for submission to publishers and, when it was accepted by Brick Books, I worked with Sue Chenette, another very gifted editor, not to mention a wonderful poet in her own right. I owe all of these people a huge debt of thanks for making me look more talented than I am. And there are others who in workshops and writing circles have helped as well, including a young man you may know named rob mclennan.
5 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
During my first session of the Banff Wired Writing Program, I learned two important writing mantras: 1) Get out of the way; 2) Show up for work. Inspiration will provide a starting point but poems are written during the editorial process and, unless you’re extremely lucky, will require numerous sessions of writing and rewriting.
6 – 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’ve touched a bit on this already. For me, the role of the writer, particularly the poet, is to defamiliarize the familiar. I’m most satisfied with my work when it presents objects and experiences from an unusual perspective or in such unconventional and self-conscious language that the reader’s habitual, ordinary, rote perceptions of those things are disturbed. As linguists and psychoanalysts, such as Roman Jacobson and Jacques Lacan, conjectured during the last century, language makes us, or perhaps more accurately, language thinks us. Reality for humans is “textual,“ Jacques Derrida concluded. But when our use of language becomes stale and automated, life is reckoned as nothing. Poetry, however, works to create the vision that results from de-automatized perception so that, as quoted earlier, “we may recover the sensation of living.” Boris Eichenbaum, another of the Russian formalists, wrote in one of his early essays on poetic language: “Art is conceived as a way of breaking down automatism in perception and the aim of the image is held to be, not making a meaning more accessible for our comprehension, but bringing about a special perception of a thing, bringing about the “seeing” not just the “recognizing” of it.” I can’t say it better than that.
7 - 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 very much an intuitive writer and my initial (Banff) approach to a new poem is to get out of the way and let the poem take its own course. That is to say, I don’t start out with any specific thematic content or set objective in mind and, as a result, the initial stages of writing a poem are for me as much a journey of exploration and discovery as the experience of the finished poem is for the reader or listener. I find the process of writing poetry to be something analogous to dream and the interpretation or analysis of dreams. The initial sitting involves an outpouring of the unconscious mind that provides me with material that I don’t fully understand but can shape with the devices of poetic language into something meaningful during the editorial process. It is at this stage that my conscious mind goes to work to detect what might be a plausible interpretation of the dream-like narrative with which I’ve been presented. Interestingly, the interplay between the unconscious and conscious minds continues throughout the editorial shaping of the poem with the result that the finished poem is without fail considerably different from the initial composition. It can be a slow process but it’s a process I find so fascinating that I’m convinced it’s one of the main reasons I continue to write poetry.
8 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading is my main source of inspiration. “Poetry envy” can be a great motivator. Freud had it all wrong.
9 - 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 tend to write daily (an advantage of being retired) and, as part of my Banff work ethic, I’m typically at my desk by 8:00 am. The idea for a new poem or solutions to problem areas in whatever it is I’m working on at the time often come to me in the night during that semi-conscious state between waking and falling back to sleep. I usually manage to jot these down before they slip from my mind and then, if I can read my writing, use them to kick-start my morning routine. Continuity during the writing and editing stages of a poem is very important to me. There’s a critical mass that builds with each writing session and I find that disrupting this momentum for any length of time can set back the completion of a poem considerably. The length of my daily writing sessions fluctuates widely. The economic analyst in me is still at work and recognizes that there’s a law of diminishing returns to the creative process.
10 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I might use an open-mic opportunity to test a new poem for its rhythm and flow and then follow-up by correcting anything that felt awkward. I read my poems aloud to myself during their composition but there is an altogether different dynamics to a public reading that can be very useful as an editing tool. The public readings I’ve done to launch or promote their blue drowning, Après Satie, and the two chapbooks have, of course, occurred after publication and have not fed into the creative process per se. But they have provided occasion for a more theatrical type of creativity and I’ve come to enjoy bringing my poems to life for an audience and presenting them in the manner I want them to be heard. On several occasions, I’ve had other poets join with me in a more orchestrated kind of reading of my work. It makes for an interesting effect and demonstrates, I think, poetry’s natural affiliation with music.
11 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Apple. Possibly a biblical (Genesis) thing. Definitely Lacanian.
12 - What are you currently working on?
A Dell Inspiron 15R. Although I’m thinking of switching to Apple.
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