Sunday, September 13, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Justin Million

Justin Million is a print and digital media poet, a performance artist, the founder of the Show and Tell Poetry Series, a co-founder and poetry editor at bird, buried press, and is the author of EJECTA: The Uncollected KEYBOARDS! Poems (Apt. 9 Press). He lives and writes in his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario.

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

My first chapbook, Forever Convinced with In/Words Magazine and Press (which I joined during my time at Carleton University), was huge for me. However, in the decade or so since leaving school I found that I was extremely lucky, in the sense that I was coming up at Carleton in a scene of great young poets and fiction writers who pushed each other to be better. We procured grants that allowed us to publish whenever and whatever we wanted, so by the end of my time at Carleton I had 14 chapbooks to my name… which apparently is nuts, but this kind of output seemed normal to us at the time. I feel bad for all of those poets who had to do everything by themselves in their 20’s and 30’s. Poets are notoriously awful and unhelpful mentors. My most recent work, and first trade book, EJECTA: The Uncollected KEYBOARDS! Poems (the inimitable, Apt. 9 Press) attempts to demystify some of the poetic process, while foregrounding the importance of immersing yourself in a community of supportive writers and audiences. Since leaving university I have been trying, in my small way, to give emerging writers as much wisdom and support as I can, to give them the help or guidance that I would have wanted, or what I needed but didn’t know I needed. So, yes, in comparing my new work to my previous work one can see (hopefully) that writing is just as much about the community or scene you’re in as much as it is about the act of writing itself. If you want clarification on that, buy my book, or buy me a drink sometime, and we’ll talk. I can always go on… And I’m pretty sure I didn’t really answer your questions directly, but… buckle up, because the rest of these answers will also meander, as is my way.

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

I didn’t… does any poet really come to poetry first? Yes, maybe you had some Shel Silverstein read to you, or nursery rhymes, when you were a kid, but, it’s the narrative aspect that catches us when we’re younger (heroes and villains, conflict and resolution), simply because nuance is beyond us young writers until we’re much older, even then…

Also, I was raised on TV, and there’s no poetry on TV.

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 certainly not a careerist writer, so my writing (mercifully) doesn’t have to take any shape. This is one of the myriad advantages of working in small press, for instance: I can take my time, or convince myself to crank it out, either way, it’s on my time, so I’ll do what I want, for good or ill. My process tends to be slow when I am putting together a manuscript, but then I also have a rich history of participating in live-writing experiments (did I mention I have a new book?) which prompts a certain speed and efficiency in process and production.

And no, I certainly do not take copious notes. Ever. I try to stay close to the idea while writing out a first draft, and too many notes, I think, can bury the spark. I always try to write the finished poem the first time, and then assess from there. Work it out in the edits, not the notes.

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 will usually begin for me with a line or phrase which usually comes from something I have observed. Sometimes I am dealing with a bigger idea, so I wonder how I can make inroads into that idea without having to circumambulate the thing a million times before I can enter into it without knowing what I’m going to do when I get there. I recommend cracking the thing open just a little, and crawling in; it’s easier to formulate an inevitable exit from the inside a thing. Same with conceiving of a book: write some, and assess. A book is not a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s never finished (even after it’s published), so don’t bother trying to nail it to the wall… a lesson I am still learning myself. This is why we have less books that are comprised of very solid ‘occasionals’, or one-off poems; a feat which I miss terribly. Where do those poems that ‘don’t fit’ end up? Publishers and granting bodies have made us operate this way, and it’s to our detriment. If the ideas you’re dealing with in your work are big enough, the theme will present itself, but if the theme is just ‘pursuing meaning’ without conceit, then you’ve really done something quite rare and special, I think.

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

Yes, I am actually most in my element at a live event. I enjoy forcing myself to be “on”. I like to mix it up with the other poets and the audience, and I like trying out material that is meant for a live audience. I would love for more poets to consider how their poems will land in a reading setting as opposed to how they might land in a manuscript. If you haven’t given much consideration to that dynamic, you are likely not the kind of reader I want to see. Rob Winger and Ben Ladouceur taught me a lot about reading in public, more so in terms of their cadence, but I put in a lot of work thinking about how I could use live readings to hone my own skill as a reader, and my craft as a writer of poems that work best when they’re performed. I would relate some more of that thinking here, but it won’t help anyone else much, as you have to find all that out for yourself, by attending readings, paying more attention to your own beats, and by interrogating the style of the readers you admire. No one else should be telling you how to read your work, but it is so crucial for you to find out; if you aren’t putting the work in to your performance, don’t expect audiences to put work into supporting your performances.

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?

High-science is usually present in my work, and the idea of a future that will never come (I mean, why are there still so many goddamn cords?/”Where the fuck’s my hoverboard?”). I like to chase the big ideas, even tho I tend to not understand a lick of what they actually mean. You know, quantum mechanics, time travel, microbiology, nanotechnology, whatever… I used to be addicted to TED Talks, as nothing puts me more at ease than listening to someone tell me, with great authority, something very specific and seemingly vital to our understanding of the world or universe: aren’t poets supposed to be doing the same thing, just without the math? That’s how I try to write, at least. I’m not trying to definitively answer any questions anymore, that’s a young person’s game. I’m more of a Lynchian/Keatsian; to truly know something is to truly kill something.

The current questions are vast, and scary, and exciting. I recently published a chapbook of poems that I had been working on for the past couple of years to get it off my plate so that I can begin to interrogate myself more about what those ‘questions’ are, because I think the world is prompting writers, especially straight white male writers like myself, to write differently, to do less observational work and more interrogative work. That means holding space for other voices and perspectives, but also doing some very difficult thinking and writing that might not be comfortable, but that is entirely necessary to educate the next generation of poets on how to critically engage with the world through their poetics. I am curious to see if this kind of work will be left to the vanguard of BIPOC and queer voices in poetry, or whether folks like myself can get past their own bullshit and actually engage with the new world in a valuable and respectful way. I think many will try, but who will have enough courage to fail (a lot) publicly in this regard, in order to move the needle forward?

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 is to elucidate meaning. Yes, a short answer, but I mean, if I want to read nonsense I’ll pick up a Toronto Sun. The best poets are quite adept critical thinkers, and I look to them to continue to show me novel ways of seeing and interpreting the world, the universe, the street, the squirrel, the chewing gum, etc. The role of the writer is to un-obfuscate. Complication has somehow gotten this reputation in modern poetry of standing in for complexity… one of the worst things we continue to teach young writers.

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

Difficult, tedious, but entirely necessary. I send my work to friends, and I am part of a small writing group here in Peterborough. That’s enough, tho, I think. I’m not sure I agree with poetry editing services, because I think these kinds of services preclude slugging it out (constructively) in a community of writers, which then limits your perspective. I have heard tell of editors who flex a little too much on a writers’ work, maybe because they feel they have to find something to say, like that kid in class who needs the participation grade but didn’t read the book. Outside voices are key, but authoritative voices seeking only to make your work more like their own are to be avoided at all costs. This is one of the reasons why small press holds more space for writers than the bigger publishing houses. Unfortunately, small presses have long been used by regional and national poetry scenes as a kind of farm system for larger publishing houses, like in professional hockey: you have to prove your ability in books below the 48 page limit of chapbooks in order to reach a renown that will then act as your draft rating, as it were, forecasting, then, when you will be tapped for a trade book. If your chapbook wins some small award, or gets reviewed favorably by a larger print entity, then you can maybe leverage that acclaim into a trade book. It traditionally goes: zine/literary journal publishing credits, then chapbook publication, then trade book… and there are very few writers who end up with a 100 pager who do not do it this way. Find a publisher who will work with you, who believes more in your work than in their press’ ability to market that work. And if you’re worried about the money, I believe you belong more on or whatever than you do reading this interview.

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

“Nobody gives a shit”. Sounds bad, but really it just means that you can ditch all the anxiety regarding how your work is received, how often you publish, etc. No one else is keeping score. No one is waiting on tenterhooks for your next opus. Give yourself the space and patience to make your work as exact as you need it to be FOR YOU. That’s it. You should really like your own work.

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

It has not been easy, which is why I haven’t really done it. One could say I have become less of a poet over the last five years and more of a performance artist, as I’ve been doing live-writing projects, art installations, and audio-visual/digital work, but these forays are always, at least, poetry-adjacent; I always come back to poetry. However, I do believe that writing-adjacent work is very important. I think when poets are ONLY writing poetry, or one kind of poetry, it shows. Their work becomes mechanical, and so does their output.

P.S. Always assess the scene you want to enter, and ask yourself if you can add something to it, otherwise you’re just forcing all your friends to buy or attend your latest thing just to be seen or heard doing it / just to get credit for having done something. You know what’s uncool? Not believing in your own work but expecting others to believe. So, to answer your question, the appeal of moving into another art form can be that that distance you’re your art form of choice might teach you more about that form. If you don’t see yourself as being a part of a larger whole, then don’t expect, well, anything. The Rilkes and Thoreaus are long gone, thank god. Even the mavericks need an audience to eschew the idea of an audience…

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?

My routine used to be to drink all the beer and see what poems emerge. That was a dumb routine that unfortunately lasted the better part of a decade, which is now finally, mercifully, ending. I tend to write either at my local watering holes, or after my partner goes to bed. A typical day begins with me checking in with my anxiety, breathing until it’s once again manageable, then having too much coffee while looking out the window, or editing last night’s vomit. Not a bad writing life, I suppose. I guess this is where I should tell emerging writers that half of writing is not writing at all. Write a lot, but think about writing in equal measure.  

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

Usually other poetry, or I read about very big ideas that I don’t fully understand… lately I’ve been reading plays. I’m still not sure what I am getting out of reading plays all of a sudden, but I can feel it changing my poetics. I’m not worried about my lack of certainty regarding what to do with all of this new reading. Again, as I said earlier about ‘not everything has to be a part of a book’… well, not everything you read or watch or listen to has to affect your writing. To give a few specifics, tho, I think Twin Peaks: The Return from 2017 is possibly the greatest season of television ever, and I’ve watched it three times in the last year or so just to fuck my brain out of complacency, but I am not suddenly writing poems about electricity. I keep returning to Matthew Rohrer’s work, especially ‘Surrounded By Friends’ and his new book called The Sky Contains The Plans. I like to listen to St. Vincent and Nina Simone. And if you know me you know how much I love to talk shop, ie: discuss poetics. I can rely on my writing partner Jeff Blackman to tell me when I’ve reached that bridge that should have been a bridge too far, then reassess. Again, talking about writing can be just as helpful to your writing as writing itself.  

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The Quaker Oats factory/landmark here in Peterborough lends a sweet and unmistakeable smell to most of the downtown, tho the factory is now more of a sad reminder of a time when the city used to have a middle-class… There are few factories left in Peterborough, which used to be a factory town. Quaker won’t stay here forever either...

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?

Of the four options listed here, science influences my art the most. I love working to make high-falutin ideas accessible (which, was the focus of my latest chapbook, which you can find for free at I think time and innovation and tech is speeding by us without a word, and more importantly, without consent. I get daily updates from a site called Futurism, and you wouldn’t believe how many moonshots are shot or fully realized daily. It’s wild, and terrifying. Science is figuring out dark matter, growing roasts from microscopic proteins, re-growing limbs in mice, making covert plans to block out the sun, running a fibreoptic cable to the moon, etc etc etc. They cloned Dolly the sheep, like 30 years ago or something… you think they threw all that tech out? One day we’re all gonna wake up pixelated.

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

American poets Matthew Rohrer and Matthew Zapruder are currently very important to my work. If you aren’t aware of them, you may want to be. Zapruder’s ‘Why Poetry’ is now required reading, and should be on every first-year university English survey class syllabus. Every few months I go back to Phyllis Webb’s ‘Naked Poems’, because of how much she was able to do in so few words; truly one of our country’s best poetic offerings. I happen to be one of the lucky few with a first edition copy of said book, from Periwinkle Press, that is in fairly pristine condition… jealous?

I’m currently enjoying reading plays, as I said, which was always a blind spot for me. Harold Pinter, and those playwrights using tension to drive the action are really doing it for me right now, tho I have maybe only read 20 plays in my life, 10 or so in the last couple weeks, so I am certainly no expert. I also get to read a lot of work by friends who are amazing poets, like Cameron Anstee, Jeff Blackman, and Elisha Rubacha, to name just a small few, as they are the poets with which I keep most in contact. As I said earlier, I am also part of a small writing group comprised of Peterborough locals Victoria Mohr-Blakeney, Scott Cecchin, and Carlin Gorecki; we are all in different stages of our writing lives which keeps the discussion, the work, and the recommendations fresh.

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

Skydiving: because I’ve always wanted to piss myself in midair... But seriously, skydiving.

I have also never eaten a sardine.

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?

I would have wanted to be a musician, for sure. Piano player. A sooty gin joint’s piano player, akin to Val Kilmer’s legendary portrayal of Doc Holliday in the movie Tombstone, when he’s moodily and very drunkenly playing Chopin for a room of oafs… Or I’d be a cruise ship crooner. Seriously. If you know me, I think you’d be able to imagine it quite easily…

Also, because of my English degree, I am an accomplished dishwasher. Most poets have a similar safety net.

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

Predilection, I guess. I always liked writing, and I was always (maybe only) creative. When I was younger, the only compliments I would get from teachers during report card or parent-teacher interview season revolved around my creativity and storytelling. Nothing else. Ever. Maybe I knew at a young age that I had better do something in my wheelhouse? And yes, I know all the Bukowski quotes about burning passion or whatever… I think when you’ve been doing it for a couple of decades like I have, the romantic reputation of poetry seems a little ridiculous. For a discipline regarded widely as being so charged with romance and insight, no one seems to care much about poets outside of poetry; everyone seems to think poetry is important but no one is reading it. Strange thing, it’s like no one wants to admit that they don’t care about poetry, but very few folks also want to be known as being someone who can’t understand or appreciate the value of poetry. Again, this is likely the fault of the poets, because, as I said, we have long been writing only for other poets.

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

20 - What are you currently working on?

Uncertain, beyond what I’ve already said about clearing my plate to get at some more timely work… What a time to be writing… I will likely be developing my new work through a local lens, in Peterborough, the bellwether city, as our fair city has no identity at all at the moment, and I’d like to do my small part in helping it find one. Hosting the biggest Mark’s Work Warehouse in the country doesn’t count as an identity, and the Petes haven’t won a Memorial Cup since 1979, so hockey can no longer be our main export (tho Peterborough is rewarding this dubious performance record with a brand new rink, because rinks get votes around here).

I’m also continuing to work, with great difficulty, on myself: “Normalize changing your perspective when presented with new information.” If only there had been better memes 10 years ago… I wouldn’t be stuck holding so much guilt.

And selling copies of my new book EJECTA: The Uncollected KEYBOARDS! Poems from Apt. 9 Press!

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