Wednesday, April 15, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Paul Pearson

Paul Pearson is the co-founding editor and chapbook designer for the Olive Reading Series. His poems have appeared in Descant and Event, and the anthology Writing the Land: Alberta Through Its Poets from House of Blue Skies. Raised in a mining town in the mountainous back-country of southeastern British Columbia, Paul has since relocated to Edmonton where he lives and writes with his wife and two children. Lunatic Engine is his debut collection.

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, Lunatic engine, is coming out with Turnstone in April 2020. This damn thing took me more than a decade to write so it didn't so much change my life as become my life.  That being said, the book I'm working on now is much more focused. Its kind of like I got all the yips out with the first one and now I can really get down to some serious work.

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

-Its odd, isn't it? As kids we are exposed to much more prose than poetry. Sure there is the obligatory Shel Silverstein we were all read back in the 70's but for the most part, fiction dominated and I always assumed I would be a novelist when I grew up. Then, in Junior High, I won a district-wide Remembrance Day poetry contest that our Language Arts teacher made everyone enter as a homework assignment. I found my price at age thirteen: $50 and the thrill (and corresponding fame, short-lived as it may be) of reading my work in front of an audience.

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 am an extremely slow writer. Big Ideas come quickly but sit and marinate for months as I try out various things, make false starts, fart around. Every now and then though, something will come out pretty much fully formed. Its that adrenaline hit that keeps me going.

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?

- Almost every single poem I've ever written has started with the title. Back in my student days, poems were standalone little things. I found it hard to keep any writing momentum up that way though and very quickly I discovered that I need a frame, a box, some restrictions, a reason, a thing. Nothing I write now isn't part of something larger.

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

- One of the reasons why Andy Weaver and I cooked up the Olive Reading Series was that we believed that poetry needs to be read aloud as much as it needs to be examined on the page. For me, these two facets of poetry are inseparable. I quite often try things out on open stages, see how a piece lives (or dies) when exposed to the open air and an audience. And while I read prose silently, I always read poetry aloud, a habit for which my kids have mocked me endlessly.

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?

- This is a big question. I don't write poetry because I figure I've got something to say. I love playing with language, the facets of sound. But I also don't use language for only its sound, its rhythm. For me, its all about generating the largest emotional impact with the fewest words. I write poetry to try to make a genuine connection through rhetorical tricks other than a logical progression of arguments. I love sound, and play, and multiple (contradictory) meanings, and imagery, and rhythm, and allusion, and non sequitur, and shape, and humour, and hyperbole and yes, litotes, and all the other tools and tricks you learn in English classes - though not punctuation, I seldom use punctuation in my poems. I use all of these not to make a point, not to convince you of something, but to connect to something, to connect to you. To share.

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?

- Ok. My current experience is that there is a desperate dearth of critical thinking in the various public spheres with which I come into contact. The commodification of our very attention now trumps genuine discourse. If it isn't viral consumerism overwhelming your feeds, its someone with an ideological bullhorn shouting at you. With the vast majority of content coming AT you, finding an arena where there is as much listening as telling, as much back as forth, is becoming absolutely essential. Writers are the ones who create that space for discourse, for rhetoric, debate, conversation, exploration. And closer to home for me, it is poetry that attempts to do this on an emotional level.

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

- I find the process of working with an outside editor absolutely exhilarating! Writing is such a solitary pursuit 99 per cent of the time. A good editor, someone who sees and understands what you're doing, what you're attempting to do, is like having a co-conspirator. Chances are no one is going to read your work as closely and as deeply as your editor.  When you have a good one, there is nothing like it.

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

- I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Don McKay when he was writer in residence at the U of A back in the 90's. He taught me to look at each poem as its own thing. Sometimes the title of a poem is also its first line, sometimes it is not.

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?

- Building a career in the civil service and then having kids really put a crimp in my days. "Lunatic Engine" was written mostly in school hallways and poolside at the YMCA and in the observation area at the gymnastics club. It was great! Swimming lessons gave me 90 minutes uninterrupted every Wednesday evening. Choir rehearsals, piano lessons, and gymnastics, were all opportunities for both positive parenting and writing time. Now that the kids are older though and have fewer activities, I find myself having to schedule writing time in my outlook calendar the same way I schedule dental appointments and haircuts. Seriously, can we all just agree and institute a Universal Basic Income program now so that I can quit my job and do what I really love? A close friend of mine reminded me last week, when I was complaining about not having enough time to create, that I'm closer now to retirement than to my 20's and that I'll still have a good 2 or 3 decades left after that. And with that I finally understood the true meaning of "cold comfort."

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

- Music. Because writing involves so much of both sides of the brain, I find it necessary to regularly switch off the left brain and give the right brain a little slack in the reins. And sleep. Seriously. A few years ago I was finally diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. Testing showed I would stop breathing an average of three times each minute. I was given a CPAP machine to to keep me from dying in the night. The first morning I woke up after a real 7 hour sleep, I thought I had been reborn:  do you people feel like this ALL THE TIME ?!?!?! So much easier to write when you're not falling asleep all the time.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

- There's a certain type of synthetic fibre used in some stuffed animals. The teddy bear my grandfather gave me when I was born smelled a certain way. A couple of my kids' stuffed animals had that same smell. More than any food or environmental odour, a certain polyester does it for me.

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?

- I am a complete omnivore for sensory input. As noted above, music tops the list but I'm also very visual and I spend a lot of time with photography and graphic design. But that's not where I generally get ideas for books. I get ideas for books from other ideas. I listen to a ton of audiobooks and podcasts. I'm a total sci-fi junky and science in general provides me with a lot of inspiration. I really think there is something to the emerging theories of ideasthesia, that semantic representations induce sensory reactions and that is the basis for consciousness. There is no difference between sensory perceptions and thought. Mind and brain are one.

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

- The list of writers or writings that have been important for my work is a long, long list. For poetry, Brenda Shaughnessy's The Octopus Museum has its tentacles firmly wrapped around me right now. I also just discovered the fiction of Claire North. The Sudden Appearance of Hope and The First 15 Lives of Harry August blew my mind this winter. And when is Ada Palmer going to publish the next Terra Ignota novel? Charles Stross is always a delightful indulgence as well. Since his passing last year I've slowly been re-reading Patrick Lane. He was hugely formative for me in my undergraduate years, alongside Sheila Watson. The Double Hook is still my favourite novel by a Canadian. And Tom King's short fiction. Jeepers!  And like you rob, a special corner of my heart has been set aside for Richard Brautigan. I'm also going to play the stereotypical English major right now and say that I am never far from Shakespeare. My beat up copy of the Pelican Shakespeare and the King James version of the Old Testament are nearly always within arm's reach.

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

-  Huh, now that's an interesting question and one that makes a number of assumptions. Publishing a book has been my number one goal since I was a kid. While I've been working towards that I've been really lucky and done a lot of other really cool stuff and have generally enjoyed what could be called success in our culture. The drive to be successful in your career fueled by the constant pressure to consume though crushes like Boethius' wheel of fortune. Its exhausting. And we also place a lot of importance on doing stuff in our culture, don't we? I'm going to push back on this question. I have spent my life striving, working. I've done a lot of stuff. There have been vacations, yes. but I've never really spent a significant amount of time with nothing to do. There has always been a fast-approaching end to unstructured time. I'm also going to be honest and tell you that I've pretty much had it with our culture here in North America. All of our forms of public discourse are broken and I despair of them ever being functional again. I've never been to Europe. The art I came of age in is all English writers, Italian painters, French musicians. My political sensibilities markedly Nordic. Sue is of French descent and trained as a fine dining chef. She's in the same boat as me. What would I like to do that I haven't yet done? Give my house and lot back to the Papaschase from whom it was stolen. Then get the hell off this continent and do nothing. For good. 

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?

-  Rather than go into the civil service and arts administration, I think I would have been a good graphic designer. Another creative pursuit that requires both sides of your brain but one that has a chance of paying more than poetry currently does.

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

- There's no way to answer this question. There's something to do other than to write? I have though been involved in a number of conversations with other white, male, cis-gender writers about privilege. A common question is: Our voices have been prioritized for so long, what right do we have to continue taking up air space? How can we use our power and privilege to address the horrific inequalities rather than to continue to help perpetuate them through complicity? Thus my answer to Question 19 below.

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

- See question 14 for some of the books that have impacted me recently. And see question 19 below for yet more. Film is interesting. I spent more than a decade heavily involved in film in a professional capacity. I watched on average more than 200 films a year. When I got out of it almost two years ago, my eyes were full. I think I may have watched a dozen films in the past year. My appetite for films does appear to be slowly starting to come back. The last mainstream film I saw that I liked was Knives Out. That Rian Johnson knows what he's doing. They really, really should have let him do the last Star Wars film - what an abomination The Rise of Skywalker was. Okay, maybe I'm still turned off film.

19 - What are you currently working on?

- The next book is called "Tarzan and the Robot Gods at the End of Time" and I figure I'm about half way through. The major bits of source material include Burrough's Tarzan books, history and criticism of Surrealism and mainstream books about quantum mechanics and string theory. This project is absolutely bonkers and I love it!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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