Jim Nason has published six poetry collections, including, Rooster, Dog, Crow which was recently released with Frontenac House, September, 2018. He has also published a short story collection The Girl on the Escalator and his third novel, Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals, was recently published by Signature Editions, Winnipeg.
His stories, essays and poems have been published in journals and anthologies across Canada and the U. S., including Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2008, 2010 and 2014.
Jim holds degrees from McGill, Ryerson and York Universities and is the owner/publisher of Tightrope Books, Toronto. He has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Award in both fiction and poetry categories and is a Finalist for the 2018 ReLit Poetry Award. He is currently working on a new short story collection: Damned if You Do.
Published internationally, Jim is the founder and organizer of Canada’s annual human rights poetry event, Meet Me in the Middle: Writers on Rights.
How did you first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
In 2000 when my partner died of cancer, I wrote The Fist of Remembering (Wolsak and Wynn) – writing that book changed my life. It was a complex exploration of love, death, faith…those things that are in question when someone you love dies. I haven’t stopped writing since. My new poetry book Rooster, Dog, Crow is my tenth book. I’ve stopped second-guessing myself. I’m uncensored and fully engaged with the literary, social and political world.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry through Blake. My M. A. thesis at McGill was a focus on his work.
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 for two hours every morning. The ideas are always generating so when I get an idea for a project I usually dive into it right away and don’t stop until I get a first draft. The first draft rarely looks complete. I love working on the second and third drafts – the process is an adventure, an unfolding and I’m alwys pleasantly surprised to learn where the journey takes me.
The book I am working on now is tentatively called Blue Suitcase. For the first time in my writing life I am keeping detailed notes about the writing process. The book deals with an emotionally and socially charged issue and I don’t want to edit myself as I write, but I want to understand some of my choices after the fact.
Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up becoming a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
These days I am very attracted to big ideas. I’ve known from day one what my last four books were books after writing the first sentence.
Are your public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’ve just started to enjoy public readings. Like many writers, I am somewhat introverted. Public readings help me come out of myself and allow me to be more mindful, engage with and remain accountable to readers.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writings? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you think the current questions are?
I’ve been a social worker for over twenty five years and my day-to-day experience of working with individuals from marginalized backgrounds is deeply entrenched in my psyche. More recently I am allowing myself to articulate what it has been like for me as a blue collar gay man. Blue Suitcase may end up being called Blue Collar Queer (lol).
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?
More now than ever, I see the writer as playing a critical role in larger culture. I make it my job to know what’s going on socially and politically and if I can play a small part in making the world safer for someone, create art that draws attention to social issue, and sometimes have fun in the process, I’m pleased.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like working with an outside editor. Anything that takes me beyond myself is good news for me. A good editor will call you out on your areas but will also nudge you in the direction of different possibilities – I’m always game for this.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Years ago, I took a workshop with Mark Doty. He said, don’t look to edit through a process of red circles and removals, edit by finding the ‘openings’ in your work and go deeper.
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s easy for me to move between genres. I knew that Rooster, Dog, Crow was going to be poems through Rooster’s voice. The first draft of the long poem in the book “Rooster Wears Stilts to the Pride Parade” came in one big gush of Rooster’s voice and carnivalesque images of a Toronto Pride parade. Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals came to me instantly as a novel. I knew it was going to be set in Scotland. I knew my main character was going to be a ninety one year old woman born in the Isle of Skye. It’s a voice thing – Rooster is a singer, a poet. Skye is an old story teller.
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 write every morning from 6 to 8. I have done this for decades. I love mornings – that just-came-out-of-dream state!
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (lack of better word) for inspiration?
I often prime the well by reading another poet. Don Domanski is my hero. That man is working in a zone that I can only dream of entering, he’s brilliant. Sometimes I am inspired by art or moves. Sometimes I go for a run… and see where endorphins take me.
What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sweet grass and sage. I burn these before writing every day.
David 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?
People influence my work -a two second glance at a person I pass on the street can bring me into a world totally different than mine.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Giving to my community is important to me. Bringing other poets together for a Human Rights poetry event or helping out at a foodbank – it’s all good and gets me beyond my own ego and the frustrations of my life situation.
What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to direct a play. I’ve written two plays and they are both in a box in the basement. Timothy Findley, a man who spent his life in the worlds of theatre and fiction, told me once that “all is gesture” – this inspired me to observe how people move through the world.
If you could pick up any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have always had multiple jobs. I have been a teacher, waiter, flight attendant, social worker, director of operations… all of these have nurtured my writing. Writing is what I love most.
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is a way of making something whole out of the chitchat of my brain. It’s something I can share with others. It helps me to understand others and myself.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – a well written, insightful autobiography. Last night I saw The Children Act with Emma Thompson – powerful writing and acting!
What are you working on?
My new poetry book Blue Suitcase was prompted by the abduction and murder of someone in my community. I am on the third draft and it continues to grow. I feel like the book is changing how I see the world in a profound way. The research I am doing, as well as the conversations I am having with people, are opening my mind to things I haven’t thought of before or haven’t thought of for a long time.