1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
All poetry is about persuasion.
With the experience of each new poem, we demonstrate, convince and cause both ourselves and our readers to think about, understand or believe in something. In this sense, every word in a poem changes us in small, random accumulations. A poem's insights and effects are cumulative, cyclical and emergent in nature, part of its collective interplay with words as well as its unraveling toward realizing its reason for being.
In book form, those same poems appear in interconnected series or sections where the intent and experience of the collection result in something more than the sum of its individual, poetic parts. The book expands exponentially beyond the persuasive experience of the one to the larger compelling structures of the many.
Scenes, my first book of poetry, was an unintended consequence of the fact that larger sections of it had already twice won the E. J. Pratt Medal in Poetry while I was at the University of Toronto. Nevertheless, it contained the early seeds of a continuum of thought around art and memory, the rhetoric of reason and belief, and meditations on love, intimacy and desire – themes revisited in varying forms in my subsequent books, Taking Shape, Birds Flock Fish School, and, more recently, KNOTS.
The pleasure of writing the poems and building up the books of Scenes and KNOTS was the same. The difference is one of finding new pathways to those ends.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry in Canada was going through a renaissance during the 1960s. It was the transition point between two very distinct generations of writers, driven in part by the appearance of a wide range of interesting new writers, government funding, the flowering of McClelland & Stewart, and the appearance of a range of new, smaller Canadian publishing houses. Poetry simply spoke clearest to what was going on in my mind, so the writing was initially sparked by that rich, exploratory environment, and emerged gradually while at university in the 70s.
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?
Between the publication of Scenes and my second book, Taking Shape, there was a gap when I experienced a writer's block of over thirty years. I made good use of that time, serving as president of several book publishing companies, including Penguin Canada, Pearson Technology Group Canada, Distican (Simon and Schuster), HarperCollinsCanada, and, while Vice President of publishing, founded the successful indigenous publishing list of Random House of Canada. Thirty years on, the writing of Taking Shape began with my decision to leave publishing. Go figure. I'm still writing.
Since that thirty-year gap, writing has been a daily activity, which means I don't rely only on an inconsistent muse to inspire . . . Writing is a discipline, and I work at it (which is more pleasing than it sounds). Infrequently, some poems spill out complete in an hour, while most can take shape over days or weeks of editing and re-writing. I always have a few different poems on the go at the same time, some of which survive the edits/additions to completion while pieces of abandoned poems are pulled apart and find a home in different poems.
Most people think poets have it easy over fiction writers because of length. Not so. The average poem can go through multiple re-writes and edits. Fifteen, twenty, thirty versions is not out of the question. With an average 70-80 poems per book, I'd say we easily produce in the rage of 500 to 600 pages of work that is ultimately boiled down to 100 pages or less.
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?
A poem usually begins the same way . . . typically with an opening two-line stanza involving a key image, metaphor or simple observation. From there the poem gradually emerges, building/editing stanza on stanza until completed. This approach was true for the last three books, though for KNOTS I then expanded or condensed the word/line spacing as well as the organizing principles of that original two-line stanza structure.
Each poem can stand alone, but in my mind it also is part of a larger frame of reference, either as a poem sequence, part of a book section, or the book as a whole. For me, that larger frame of reference is grounded primarily in two counter-balancing principles of structure and organization that simultaneously support and oppose each other as well as provide a potent mix of stability and change: (1) Ciceronian rhetoric, specifically its more formal organizational structure of five component parts critical in the art of persuasion, and (2) the self-organizing and adaptive learning processes in language as best understood through the science of emergence.
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, mainly because they are the closest to unfiltered feedback from the intended audience.
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?
A poem can be thought of as a snare for thinking. Offering neither clear answers nor resolutions, its puzzle/riddle-like quality has the form or force of a question where the answer is contained within the question. It doesn’t provide directions, but rather presents predicaments the reader alone must encounter and interpret. What a poem does is find itself from the inside out; its centres of thought draw together its periphery, giving birth to the force of reciprocal influences. The complex of words and syntax of a poem rearranges fixed ways of understanding what is happening by actively undermining and then re-building relationship and presence, time and perspective. You can’t understand just one thing for long; your mind must wander endlessly in search of a way out.
The experience and interpretation of a poem is not entirely cumulative, but cyclical, and, to a certain degree, repetitive and recursive; it is repeatedly interrupted and rearranged by new, iconoclasticdiction and syntax. A poem acts as a kind of social substitute; it is a mediated world in which our thinking, comprehension and emotional attachments are remade, re-formed, and integrated into a new perception of our world and our place in it. In uncovering thoughtful meaning in the obvious, a poem needs clear communication and persuasion as well as distortion and deception; it is also seductive in that it reaches out to those things we fear and crave the most: loneliness and intimacy. In the end, a poem is never present in itself, but always at large in the mind of the reader.
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?
The role is simply to write. Any attempt to assume a role beyond writing will poison the well.
Culture will take and absorb what it wants/needs from you, without particular regard to what you think that should be.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The best editors are the ones whose work is essential to a better reading experience while being invisible in the writing itself.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It's a waste of emotions to answer critics; better to stay in print long after they are dead – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
More often than not, moving between my art and poetry is a question of relief. Each time I switch it's like a vacation from which I return refreshed and ready to begin again. I find the integration of the written word and visual image as co-dependent and deeply related. Like physics or good conversation, that which is most pleasing, intelligent and entertaining in a poem or work of art often depends as much on what is missing as what is actually there. The ambiguity of empty space – on the page or canvas – defines what must occupy that space, while the silences embracing our words or the absences in the visual art create questions and teach us the luxury and balance of knowing little while assuming much more.
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?
A couple of hours every day, whether I want to or not. It can be spread in smaller time slots, though rarely in the morning. I'm one of those blessed/cursed people who need only a few hours of sleep, so usually late at night when the house is quiet.
Because I tend to work on two or three poems at once, I'm always beginning my routine in the middle of something not yet finished. New beginnings almost always appear while writing/editing for one of the other poems already in progress.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other than that 30-year writer's block mentioned in Question #3, I'm now rarely stalled . . . because I work at it, even when nothing seems to work, and, as mentioned in the last question, I'm always working on several poems at once.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
"Gapbody Raincheck", which has been discontinued by Gap and has remained unavailable for years. I keep hidden away what must be the last bottle of it anywhere . . . brought out only for select jazz concerts or family celebrations. As I write this, a social media movement is beginning to take shape to petition the president of Gap to re-introduce this scent to a public much in need of its effects.
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?
All of those mentioned in the question.
Other writers' poetry nudges me more than it inspires, though Wallace Stevens always explains everything.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love books that break new ground or completely challenge how we think . . . Like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Moby Dick. Of course, anything by Shakespeare or Dickens.
What I really enjoy is "big idea" nonfiction by the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Susan Sontag, Henry Petroski, Roger Martin, Clay Shirky, Nate Silver, Don Tapscott, Steven Johnson, James Surowiecki, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, Richard Thaler, John Brockman, Daniel Kahneman, Christopher Hitchens, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Postman, James Gleick, Barry Schwartz, and Carl Honore.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel in space . . . See the earth from the moon. Weightlessness.
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 brain surgeon.
During the early 1960s there was a program called, if memory serves, "Medic 61". It was ground-breaking at the time because it showed actual operations, including cutting, blood, clamping, etc. The very first show was a brain operation where they drilled (using what looked like a carpenter's u-shaped wood hand drill) into he skull, and then inserted electrified rods into key areas of the brain to eliminate or reduce the shaking of Parkinson's disease. Magic.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The pleasure of it, of wrestling a poem to the ground until it speaks to what it was always intended to say. Most days, the surprising outcome of that effort comes close to pure satisfaction.
The Way a Poem Knows
Something about the way a poem knows,
something that keeps us reaching into it
from a place of dreaming not unlike this.
The poem calls and sets a path in the dark
and lights fields of our belief. The poem sees
the truth in the telling is not revealed in what
it doesn’t know, but in finding itself
released like a stream from its knowing.
Something about the way a poem finds
its place in our minds, something that finds
the truth of what is meant to be but harder
still to say. Something about a poem that asks
and answers, setting loose the slow riddle
of its voice, something it freely confesses
to knowing, like the clear thread of this portrait
about to discover the way a poem finds its end.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great poetry book was Kay Ryan's The Best of It. Last great nonfiction was Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.
As the idea of "movie" becomes more a part of the next golden age of TV/online streaming, effectively changing the medium, I have to say there can't be just one . . . True Detective, The Knick, Borgen, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Next book of poems, titled Push & Pull . . . Next art show . . .
12 or 20 (second series) questions;
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