William Vallières is a Montreal poet. His work has appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry 2019, The Walrus, Event, and Grain. His first book, Versus, is out with Véhicule.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Versus, has just come out, so it’s hard to measure its impact. For now, though, apart from small secretarial stuff like having to answer more e-mails, I feel a pervasive sense of “you wanted this? well, here you have it”, with its concomitant mix of accomplishment and melancholia, when you come to realize that desire, the dumb drive for the thing, is almost more important than the thing itself.
As for the difference between my previous work and what I’m doing now, less fuckery I hope.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Rock and roll. I only started writing when I reached my thirties. But a hell of a lot of albums were absorbed in the meantime.
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?
Poems come slow and painful; drops gnawing on stone. Rarely do they come in their final form, but when they do, it’s cause for dance. Usually, it’s a process that takes months, years. A long whittling wind. And I’m wary of those who claim otherwise.
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?
Versus came poem by poem. It didn’t have a deliberate thread. It’s most unifying feature is it’s “production,” if you want to think of it in term of albums. Then it was honed to a vision, a process my editor Carmine Starnino played an important part in.
The new project I’m approaching much more as a “book” — it has a deliberate arch, the poems are more interconnected, “characters” recur. That being said, it still remains fragmentary. I think it’s important for poems to be able to stand on their own, to not be too overdetermined too strictly. The songs in The Who Sell Out can all be enjoyed on their own. The concept enriches the individual parts, of course, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the parts. At the end of the day, I’m writing poems, not poetry. Every poem should be able to be a single.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Counter. I enjoy doing readings, but when they rear their horns, my writing goes fallow for a few days. More beer is poured. I go Garbo: just leave me alone. But — how it affects me is irrelevant, really. Poetry is an oral art, a public art, second only to music, so it has to stand up to that, absolutely.
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?
Theory is important in helping us understand reality. I read theory and philosophy avidly. But I think, in the end, they’re for the daytime. Poetry is for the nighttime. Poetry is about “always working / beyond your own intelligence,” as Les Murray put it. Calvino talks about keeping your cards close to your chest.
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 of the writer should be to remind people how to be free. Gary Snyder said: “Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they like the cage they were tricked into entering.” Poetry should smash the cage and build a nest instead.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In my case, essential. Not only did Carmine reign in the book’s vision (a vision that only got more myopic with time), he also taught me indirectly how to edit myself in the future. I’ve internalized his editing and have applied it to my writing, almost as a second nature. I wonder what he’d despise (but never what he’d like). I spot the fluff quicker. It saves time.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Love your neighbour, but keep your hedges high.
10 - 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 have to write every day or else I get flustered, I start to sweat in perfectly temperate places such as the checkout line in the supermarket or at home as I wash the dishes because why am I wasting my time on this!? The “this” doesn’t matter. But if I write every day, the feeling sort of lifts.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Translation. Every poet should translate. It’s like the nutrients from the bottom of the sea that rise to feed the surface. It’s the subconscious that nourishes the conscious. You can read a poem, you can talk about it, you can do a powerpoint on it, you can deconstruct it to shit — translation is different, it’s the only way you can understand it to its life-giving marrow.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Soup and coffee.
13 - 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 movies. Music for the way it proceeds, the way it unfolds, its storytelling if you will. Movies for the sex and death.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Zbigniew Herbert, Auden, Les Murray, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pierre Nepveu, Thomas Hardy, Pierre Reverdy, Melville, Jacques Brel, Badiou, Stevie Smith, Zizek, Blake, Christian Bobin, Bishop, Serge Gainsbourg.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d prefer to stay at home.
16 - 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 mailman, or the keeper of a sizeable park.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I came to writing accidentally, but a part of me also doesn’t believe in accidents. Be faithful to your desire, Lacan says. At this point, writing has fused with my death drive; I can’t imagine another way forward.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
A book of poems about my grandfather, the inventor Jean St-Germain.