Tuesday, January 14, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Douglas Walbourne-Gough

Douglas Walbourne-Gough (photo credit: Heather Nolan) is a poet and mixed/adopted Mi'kmaq from Corner Brook, Newfoundland. His poetry has appeared in journals and magazines across Canada and he’s recently found some success writing reviews and essays. His first collection, Crow Gulch, is published with Goose Lane's icehouse poetry imprint. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC Okanagan and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at UNB Fredericton.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I started working on Crow Gulch in 2010. Since then, the book’s become about the community of Crow Gulch; about my grandparents’ and my father’s place in that community; about Land as both a place of healing and as its own character within the book; about poverty, trauma, and stigma; about identity; and, finally, about my own place within the story of Crow Gulch. This evolution took the necessary time, reciprocity, emotional and mental energy, and care to tell this story with love and responsibility.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I actually grew up reading fiction, mostly from the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club or Scholastic book fair orders. I would also find myself reading whatever Readers’ Digest were around, newspapers, ingredients lists on food packages, whatever there was to read. I was mostly a loner as a child but if I had something to read I was fine. The first adult book I recall reading was Cycle of the Werewolf (apparently originally intended to be a calendar), by Stephen King with brilliant illustrations by Bernie Wrightson. From there, I just kept asking people what novels/stories they were reading and borrowed their copies, or combed library book sales.

I hadn’t read any poetry (outside of a handful of mandatory poems for high school and intro undergrad courses) until I was about twenty-two or twenty-three. It was Dionne Brand’s collection, Thirsty, that offered me my first taste of metaphor: “Chloe sand By the Rivers of Babylon / then burst like cake into tears” (38). I could actually see this human form physically crumbling in its grief. It was about the same time that I first encountered John Steffler’s poem “That Night We Were Ravenous”, the first full poem I fell in love with. There’s a poem in Crow Gulch (“I Dream of Moose”) that owes John’s poem a great nod of thanks.

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 don’t really think in linear terms so it’s a real gift when a poem comes together quickly. Sometimes I get obsessed with a small idea and research intensely for a few weeks (DB Cooper, or narwhals, for example) for a single poem. It’s always different for me, though. Some other poems come nearly formed while others take years of drafts before they feel right. Crow Gulch almost didn’t happen at all, out of fear of failure. But the time, energy, money, and research material that went into it are, now, near impossible to quantify. So many other unrelated poems have happened during that process as well.

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?

Some poems come from witnessing (“Weight”), others come from dreams, or from lived experience (“Trouting” or “The Sea is Always Happy”). Some come from fear and social anxieties/realities. Poetry is just the one way of expression that makes sense to me. The fireworks web of immediate, simultaneous and connected reactions I have to an event or pressure needs me to be able to tell you that the colour seven smells like honesty. Poetry lets me come close to that. Someday I think I’d like to try painting these things out as well. But, no – nothing necessarily starts out as a book idea. I have attention span issues (why I don’t write long poems or fiction).

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I actually do enjoy readings. It’s the one time that I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant for. I’m wary of the word ‘power’, as I don’t crave or seek it out, but I can’t help but feel powerful when I give a reading. I love testing out brand new pieces at readings. Honing a new piece, in real time, is one of my favourite ways to grow.

I’ve also been organizing/producing arts events, launches, and readings for a dozen years (I think I’m retired, now). I know all the unpaid, rarely-thanked, and intense work that can go into an event. We do it for the love. My heart to all you admins and organizers, all you lovelies running book tables and making magic happen.

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 really don’t know if I’ve ever set out with theory in mind, to be honest. Best I can say is that I write from my heart and my gut.

Shawn Wilson, in Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods, articulates something I try to keep in mind, though: “Research is all about unanswered questions, but it also reveals our unquestioned answers” (6).

My current questions are more direct – what does / can a Newfoundland Indigeneity look like and how can it function, in both the provincial and national context? The inescapable hybridity in these possibilities.

I also have other questions, too – Where do eels go to breed? Is Sasquatch real? If you make eye contact with a breaching whale are you suddenly a better person? How do arctic terns manage all that distance?

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’m not sure I have a specific role. No one’s commissioning me to write poetry. And I doubt I’d accept such an offer. I’ll always read and write poetry, it’s always my greatest salve. But putting a role to it makes me feel like I’m no longer free to write. It’s simple psychology, but it works for/on me. I also don’t know what inhibits or influences other writers so I’d never want to suggest they have roles to fulfill.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential. Editing Crow Gulch with Robin Richardson not only sharpened the existing poems but generated new poems as well. I think I’ve said as much in a previous interview but it deserves repeating – that experience felt like a mentorship as much as editing a manuscript. I know I’ve been very fortunate in my first time through the process, that future books and editors may be more difficult, but I know they’ll be essential experiences, too.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

In 2007 Randall Maggs told me that I had something to offer but I needed to get over myself and write something worthwhile.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I just like thinking about books that excite me. Several years ago Joan Sullivan, editor of Newfoundland Quarterly, asked me if I’d be interested in writing a review. I’d never done so but gave it a go and have published a few more reviews, since. I don’t really see it as much of a move from or between things, to be honest. In thinking, reading, and writing about writing I increase my understandings as a writer.

I’ll also add that when I write a review, now, it’s because I love a book and want to help it reach other readers. In that regard, not everyone would think the term ‘critical’ applies to my reviews (all five of them). And that’s fine by me.

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’ve never had the luxury of an office or a studio, save for a four-month stint where I pretended I could afford a tiny studio rental. I love black coffee and cafes seem to love offering wi-fi so most everything I’ve written, from poems, reviews, grad school apps, to Canada Council grants, have been in cafes. I usually bring a notebook, my favourite pencil, a book or two of poetry or essays, and my laptop. Headphones are essential. Someday I hope I’ll have my own dedicated writing space but it’ll need to be a decent walk from my home and it’ll need at least a kettle and an aeropress. This routine also depends on what job I’m working at the time.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I run, walk, hike, weight train, listen to music, watch movies and television, read books by poets far better than me, pick the brains of other writers I know. If I’m in Newfoundland I’ll go solo running in the hills of the Bay of Islands or see if I can get dad to grab the canoe and go trouting. I’m not a very good relaxer so I need to actively try and undo the log-jam. Passively waiting for anything makes me uneasy (maybe I should do it more for that very reason).

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The oddly sweet smell of brook trout on my hands, or the mixture of a driftwood beach fire with the salt breeze down in Cedar Cove. The smell of moose meat, cooking or raw. Autumn decomposition in the bog and boreal forest. Lighting a woodstove with matches and birch bark. Bakeapples and blueberries.

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?

Land. The land of Southwestern Newfoundland affects me psychically, emotionally, and physically. It’s a teacher, a mother, and a healer.

Music has never really directly resulted in a poem for me but I don’t think I’d ever want to live without the profound emotional effect music has on me. It’s found its way into some poems by way of reference, though.

I’ve always been quite taken with Barnett Newman’s 1970 painting, “MidnightBlue”. I think it’s my favourite image. I have a mild form of synesthesia, chromesthesia, where sounds produce colours in my mind. When I’m really lucky I get both colour and shape. I’ve been working on a suite of poems about that for years, now, about colour and connotation and connection, but I still can’t get it how I’d like.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I just finished reading, and loved, Dominique Béchard’s debut collection One Dog Town. It feels, to me, as if Karen Solie’s thousand-yard prairie stare was distilled into an oak tree, being observed at 3am, alone, through a Northern Ontario window. Lindsay Bird’s debut, Boom Time, is another I’ve really been enjoying (and had the pleasure of reviewing). I’m really looking forward to Adele Barclay’s Renaissance Normcore, devoured Megan Gail Coles’ Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, have been re-reading Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s Port of Being, Heather Nolan’s This Is Agatha Falling, and can’t wait to read Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild. Oh, and Stan Dragland’s forthcoming literary criticism text, The Difficult.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Abstract painting appeals to me. Maybe lose the fear of flying and actually travel for leisure instead of for school or work. Earn a living from writing. Relax, maybe take a week’s vacation. Be kinder to myself. Become halfway decent at writing the personal essay. Run a half marathon. Make the difficult parts of my mind harmonize with the swell of love in my heart.

I did finally quit facebook, though.

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?

From age seventeen to twenty two, I cut my teeth on automotive factory work, construction/demolition, working a hot dog cart, working in a video arcade, being physical therapist’s assistant on an Alzheimer’s ward, shovelling driveways, and being a stock clerk/cashier/security for both a dollar store and a Zeller’s. I had an undergrad’s worth of menial work experience before I started my undergrad.

In the years since becoming a writer (middle of my undergrad) I’ve been a construction labourer, a barista/café manager, worked in a public library, delivered furniture, been a landscaper, produced arts events, done freelance and adjudication work, and been an art gallery attendant. Now, at thirty seven, if this PhD doesn’t pan out I can still go back to just about anything to make rent.

If I had the mind for biology I’d like to be an ichthyologist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I’ve always had to do something else, simultaneously, to pay the bills. So they’ve had to co-exist But, I think it was knowing (and, eventually, admitting) that I had a lot more to express than I could in just conversation. A lot more weird, difficult, and wonderful questions to ask of the world. A lot more anxiousness and fear that needed facing exploring in order to work through (still working on that). I like it, though, this equal footing in blue collar work, in creative writing, and in academics. The different contexts and realities from which I can see things, simultaneously.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’ve just re-read Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessess: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction (“WE ARE MAKING BIRDS, NOT BIRDCAGES” 47) which I often pair with a re-read of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey (“Could you have sympathetic feelings in more than one direction? And can you think at the same time?” 45).

One of the dearest people in my life recently showed me Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s both subtly hilarious and overtly heartfelt, both things I’m very much ok with. I’m not sure if that constitutes as great film but, in case it doesn’t, let’s go with In Bruges. If In Bruges doesn’t count, let’s watch Bojack Horseman again, relish in the perfect moment in each season when the word ‘fuck’ carries so much weight.

20 - What are you currently working on?


Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. Thirsty. McClelland & Stewart, 2002.

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