Sunday, January 17, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Conrad Scott

Conrad Scott is an alumnus of the 2010 Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Waterline Immersion (Frontenac House 2019) is his first poetry collection, with earlier poetry appearing in such publications as Freefall Magazine and The Enpipe Line. Dr. Scott’s current creative and academic work contemplates the environmentally troubling present as related to speculative imaginings of the future—urging us to look askance at our society and our sense of place in the world. He is working on a second poetry collection and a novel set in the future.    

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Waterline Immersion (Frontenac House 2019) is my first book, and was a process of around a decade to develop from inception to completion. In comparison, I wrote and arranged a significant portion of my most recent poetry work-in-progress over an intensively focused month-long period -- though I have since added content, and intend to take further time to consider the manuscript and any additions, cuts, or edits. 

Waterline Immersion is, effectively, my first substantial public statement as a writer, and concentrates much of my thinking about poetry over quite a long period of time. I've heard people talk about their first book as if it were a child put into the world, and perhaps that is true in a certain way, but I also see the publication of the book as allowing me to move forward with my thinking so as to address other ideas and writing projects. Previously, I had only published a handful of poems, despite having started while in my undergraduate studies (circa 2002, and beyond) to think about what a serious contribution to contemporary poetry might look like. Many of those early attempts were experimental but juvenile in several ways, and though I am still always developing my craft and approaches to writing, with first the lead-up to finishing Waterline Immersion and then with my new work, I certainly feel more confident and in control of my writing in moving to subsequent projects. One of the primary conceptual differences between my first book and my current manuscript efforts is that I had earlier been quite interested in what a further development of the long poem might look like if it were considered as historical fragments mixed with family stories and mythology or, alternatively, the remnants comprising a particular sense of place (the river valleys of my birth); my newer manuscript draft instead builds its discussion in bursts that, while interconnected or reflective, are also working towards negations and erasures in favour of a more productive emergence.

While Waterline Immersion is quite new, at around a year old, I feel that I am now, more than ever, in a position as a writer to start pushing myself.  
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to poetry later than other forms, as I started by writing short fiction as a youth—entering a handful of local competitions in elementary school. But poetry was my first foray into trying to write something beyond that which is assigned, or simply for fun—though there is always a certain amount of play still working itself through.

I would also say that fiction and non-fiction modes present themselves even in my poetry. In Waterline Immersion, both are fundamental elements since I am, at times, melding the historical with the mythological and, at others, historicizing life events of my late family (grandparents). A certain mixture of the fictional and non-fictional will go into any such enterprise—and examples of this abound throughout the history of literature. But, for Waterline Immersion, these modes, together, comprise the whole that is the book—that is the hybrid nature of maybe any document or text.

I am curious to see, as I continue to work on my current poetry and speculative fiction book projects, how this hybridity will develop in unexpected ways, though I already know that the first will draw in some measure on both history and myth again, and the second will likely not involve direct attempts at the poetic.   
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 think that I have only had three (published) poems that emerged as nearly close to their final form. All three involved highly emotional moments that crystalized themselves into poetry: one, after a break-up; another, after a death; and the last, in recollecting and preserving a personal memory about a family member.

The rest of my writing has come out of copious notes, revisions, re-directings, and rethinkings. My speculative fiction work-in-progress, for instance, has undergone a few dramatic alterations that perhaps not only have to do with the concerns of the times, but also the narrative that wants to be told. I have several years of "notes to self" in the form of a long, long email chain as ideas came to me. Will all of those aspects find themselves into the final text? Very likely they will not. But these notes have been instrumental to putting me where I am in the writing process today.

Two of my poetry book projects—Waterline Immersion and my current work-in-process—both started as fairly clear and defined ideas.  But the first also underwent some significant changes that necessarily added to the poetic considerations of history and place, for instance. And my current work-in-progress also folds in some earlier manuscript ideas—even though it is also unique from those earlier iterations.

I can also easily say that the most significant progress I have made on both my current poetry and speculative fiction book projects is to simply sit down and start running with a specific idea, letting the writing flow out and leaving the editing mostly for later. This is an approach that I did not always find as successful for Waterline Immersion (except in certain parts), but I think it aligns strongly with what I have heard from writers who are more practiced and senior than me.  

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?
I would like to say that a poem usually begins with a topic or an observation, but it is also true that some poems simply come out because of an emotional resonance. I suspect that the latter are more successful, but either way any poem I write seems to be crafted around a focal point from which I develop words and a form that feel "right." Sometimes, though, this might involve quite a bit of revision. I still return to poetry attempts from years ago in what is perhaps a vain goal of reorganizing, reframing, simplifying and rebuilding, and/or understanding what I want to say anew. And there remain many pieces that still never quite feel right.

I have had several "book" ideas over the years, and many of these are in stages from nearly untouched to worked-upon-but-not-yet-complete. In terms of short pieces conglomerating versus the initial focus of a book, it honestly depends on the project and how and when I came to the focal manuscript idea. I think there is necessarily some recycling of older writing that can go into some of my newer works, but then again other ventures are completely fresh and tend to develop along the lines of their particular book project. The latter is definitely true of my speculative fiction manuscript (even if part of that narrative involves cobbling together different focal points of view). Waterline Immersion, on the other hand, began as a specific book project, but then also involved some combination of ideas to give it a final form. The project that might be the most in-between "combination" and a clear "book" project from the beginning is my current poetry manuscript work-in-progress, which began as and remains a fresh idea and form disconnected from my previous ideas—though I also remembered that I had a handful of poem ideas from up to a decade ago that I might consider folding into the manuscript structure, while editing and reconsidering their initial attempts. Some of these may not end up in the final manuscript, but I think this observation is interesting to make, since the text of that MS works to recycle itself in various ways as a part of the book progression.   

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I'm still getting used to doing readings—which I think is funny, since I have done public speaking from a young age. I do, however, enjoy them, and especially hope to channel and learn from the energy I see in authors who really engage the audience. Here I am thinking of someone like Richard Van Camp, who always brings a certain something to any room.

In terms of poetry (or at least mine), the act of doing readings seems like a necessary part of the creative process, because verbalizing the written text helps me better understand the rhythms therein, and the roles of specific wordings. While this may not help for writing that is already in print, I think it will certainly contribute to future writing that may come with the foreknowledge of how the language "sounds." This is something I already urge my university English students to consider, but it is also something I think I need to force myself to put into better practice.  
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 would venture to say that I always have theoretical concerns behind my writing, whether these involve ways of perceiving the world or contemplating particular issues, or whether they involve questions of style, form, and/or genre. Perhaps I cannot help such approaches, since I am also trained as an academic to analyze literature.

I have several current questions that make their way into ongoing works-in-progress. Without going into too much detail, part of what my speculative fiction manuscript considers includes narrative, and how development occurs for a very specialized character and narratorial voice that overarches a text also containing shorter story snapshots and points of view on events and subjects related to the larger story. Considering how and when this works and/or fails is fundamental to the particular overarching narrator / character.

Dovetailing this, since everything that occurs is set in our future, are structural questions, but also considerations of imagining how events now or in our near future might affect the world of the further future. This includes large scale concerns like climate change, but those of localized communities and questions of changes to a sense of place—among many other issues.

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?
In fact, it is fair to say that these concerns I just mentioned (questions about the future) preoccupy quite a bit of my writing, from the speculative, to the poetic, to the academic. While I may include other subjects and may write in different styles, I see my own role, at least, as someone who strives to speak to environmental and social disruptions that are already taking place, and imagine how they will affect future societies and the world.

But I cannot tell all of the necessary stories involved in those questions -- and certainly not the cultural ones specific to certain peoples. In that sense, then, the role of a writer should be, I think, to tell stories that open up conversations either connecting to or making space for others who wish to speak. And, after listening, then, perhaps, it is the role of the writer to try telling stories that remain -- stories that have no other teller, maybe. Many current larger cultural concerns (or even specific ones) are indeed focused on the future. Some are also deeply invested in the past, and in versions of histories told.  One thing I hope to do as a writer is to keep an eye on the past, while helping us all imagine the future.   

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Certainly "both"—though with the first, not because of any hubris or resentment or something like that. Rather, the "difficulty" involves me working to overcome particular writing tics, and learning to listen to outside voices that can more readily identify these problem areas. At least for now, whatever the writing style, I believe that an outside editor is not only essential, but important to me better developing my own self-editing skills and strategies. Perhaps I will always benefit from an outside editor, but I also appreciate what they bring to a project as a form of learning I can engage with.     

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I grew up doing martial arts (White Crane gung-fu), and practiced for many years, including earning my black belt. The piece of advice that comes to mind was often repeated by my si-fu (master), who asked us to consider learning as if each step involved delving a deep well of knowledge first, before moving on to the next element—rather than treating each learning step as a shallow pool.

Now, I cannot say that I have always successfully heeded this approach in life OR learning, but it does seem like an analogy that could easily be applied to the writing process. In fact, it’s an excellent way to frame something that involves practice, trial and error, and often multiple attempts at a final product—or even something that requires continual work after achievement and constant growth, whether that is martial arts or creative practice. Fittingly, in this case, the original meaning of gung-fu (kung-fu) is anything (not necessarily martial arts) that involves hard work and practice and, with that in mind, I constantly strive to delve deep into whatever the wells of my writing want to reveal.

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

Though I don’t know if I’d ever call either mode “easy,” since I also write as a literary and cultural critic (publishing academic articles and book reviews, etc, and presenting at conferences), I likely make the transition without much difficulty. If anything, I’d say I stray more towards being too critically-inclined when I’m trying to focus on writing poetry or creative prose. Mea culpa? Whether this is a problem or not remains to be seen, and though sometimes I’d like to be able to write in one mode completely free of the other, perhaps that is simply how I approach any writing—in a hybrid, multi-modal manner. Waterline Immersion seems to echo this both as a text, and in the research that went into it. Moreover, my speculative fiction work-in-progress is, in many ways, a creative echo of the sustained research that has gone into my academic work. But it’s also true that, in editing my PhD dissertation, I was sometimes told I was writing too “poetically,” in places.

I think there is definitely something fundamentally important about being able to think in both modes, though—even if I need to learn to better self-edit when approaching a given mode of writing. That is, to paraphrase what I believe is George Bowering’s argument in Writing and Reading (2019), both of those activities are equally important to the profession. I would also add criticism, which is perhaps already implied by the nature of those short essays.   

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?
A sustained writing routine is something I have yet to achieve. Part of this is because, since 2012, I have also had my weekly schedule change every university term while I taught (and my time changes before that also included different class schedules).

My most involved writing currently tends to come later in the evening or at night; however, I see the benefits to establishing a more regular schedule that might involve a process starting in the morning.    

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

Since my daily, weekly, monthly schedule, and so on, is currently organized in terms of tasks I need to complete, there is always something else to work on if my writing gets stalled. But perhaps the most productive moments for getting back into stalled writing occur when the list of things to do seems momentarily “cleared”: it is in these moments that my brain will jump immediately into a creative mode, as if it had always been working on a given project while also completing other tasks.

I think one thing I do also need to return to, though, is simply reading more. The work of other writers has always, naturally, been an inspiration for mine.  

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I grew up and lived 28 years of my life in Kamloops, British Columbia—so I suppose the answer should be “sagebrush” or “pine,” but I don’t think it’s either of those. (I also have pollen allergies, so maybe I’m resentful). What really comes to mind is a perhaps indescribable scent of water—ironic, given the semi-arid nature of the area. But I somehow smell the river in my mind, or even some of the nearby lakes. What is a body of water, though, if not in some way a mixture of all the things surrounding it?

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?

I like to read about / contemplate a variety of things that I either do not understand or did not know about in the world, human culture, or the larger universe. This covers all manner of interests, from insect colony dynamics, to obscure developments in artistic and scientific history, to extraplanetary phenomena, and so on. In turn, I like to, and even think it is important to, share on some level with others. Much of this finds a home somewhere in the variety of writing projects that I develop (though some remain in their infancy). Or some things I engage with prompt new learning opportunities and interests that I could never have imagined otherwise.

From the above categories, I think that it is probably most truthful to say that elements of nature, science, and visual art predominately echo throughout the things I write about. But, paradoxically, that brings up a unique opportunity to comment on my odd relationship with music. That is, while I would say that I love music, I also have incredible difficulty naming a musician / group or song name on the spot—even if I absolutely recognize it and have heard it multiple times. It's shockingly bad, really. This is true even if I have rocked out many times to some classic oldie or been pulled into the newest beats on the radio. Even that sounds lame. Simply put, I love music, but find myself hopeless at "knowing" it. In fact, I have trouble just throwing music on at home and then trying to write.

But this is where the full confessional comes in. Though I can find it hard to sit and write with a single source of outside noise (I can find that distracting to a specific train of thought), at times when I am really entering into a certain mode of writing, I get pumped and get into it as if I were listening to something that really hits the spot. Interestingly, no music needs to be playing when this happens, yet I still feel the flow of the writing process in that way. It's almost as if my brain recreates a subconscious upflow of inspiring music in those moments, and my body and creativity sync with that impression. In those moments, I move with the feeling.       

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

I’ll be honest that I always find this type of question so very difficult to answer—especially since each piece and/or form of writing I attempt will have different influences, possibly from very different genres! 

My first English degree (undergrad) involved a “historical” focus, but I later moved on to a love of contemporary forms and topics. As a teenager, I used to read quite a bit of fantasy literature (ie sword and sorcery), but I’ve since developed more interest in sf writing (speculative and science fiction literature). Likewise, my poetry interests and influences are always developing.

Essentially, as a non-answer, I find it important to connect with a variety, with a depth and breadth of writers and their writings—but I know that I am always drawn to engaging with what is new and innovative. If this relates to a form or genre I am interested / engaged in working on myself, then I also hope to learn as much as I can from my contemporaries.

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

I’ve always wanted to live internationally—experience and immerse myself into other places for a while—or even do so in various Canadian locales. I don’t mean jet-setting to beach vacays or doing the tourist beat everywhere. To learn to really resonate with a sense of place is much more important to me.    

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 was recently reminded that I’d once held a desire to be an astronaut—though I’m not sure this had anything to do with actually desiring to go into space over a desire to explore new horizons. I’m convinced that it’s the creative engine inside that pushes such potential professions, and that same engine and energy that ultimately makes me step away from those I either no longer see as creative enough, or am not built to be creative enough within. For instance, with the latter, I actually also have a math degree, but I realized long ago that to really be a mathematician, one needs to be able to be creative in that mode. I was not, and I’ve no doubt forgotten much of my math learning in the fifteen years since. In various moments I also thought I might pursue a variety of professions like architecture, engineering, or oceanography—each with a mixture of desiring to be creative and to explore new things that perhaps many others are capable of. And I’m quite certain that I will always be searching for new ways to create, as that energy and desire inside pushes itself out of me.

Maybe I could have even been a visual artist like my mom, Marie Scott (, since I was taught quite a bit about visual art when I was younger, and even did some myself—but I also think I’ve always needed to find my own way to create.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think that I cannot help but write. It is a drive that has arguably always been there to a degree—even back to childhood when I would concoct rather imaginative cards for family occasions (complete with my own brand of hallmarkesque jingles!). But the drive to write seriously has outlasted other potential career paths and life choices since my early university days, and superseded a brief and earlier interest in visual art spurred by my artist mother. I have even written when I was not "supposed" to be doing so—otherwise maybe now I'd be an engineer, a mathematician, or even operating forklift at a plywood mill. None of those or other areas satisfied my creative nature, though: the drive to write has always been my most acute creative mode.     

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I have what I already know are so many great books sitting on my shelf right now, waiting to be read—even just for fun. Part of the problem with me not having read them yet is that I was focused, for several years, on the type of reading that my doctoral dissertation necessitated. One might be tempted to say that all reading is the same, but it really is not. This finished in the Fall of 2019, and I don’t think I’ve completely recovered from that mode, yet, but I look forward to simply just wanting to read for fun again—like I used to do as a kid who would wake up at ridiculous hours of the morning (or go to bed really late) simply to continue devouring the latest book.

As for films and/or shows, I’ve been feeling really “meh” about streaming services lately, but I’d recommend Lovecraft Country if only based on the three episodes I’ve seen so far.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I've just finished the first draft of my second poetry book manuscript, which is currently called Adora Tellus Tempori, and is, at first glance, a collection of poems that takes the centuries-long gaze of the romance poem and questions it, turns it upside down, erases and rewrites it. It confronts and rejects the possessiveness and violence often hidden below the false expectations of such a poetic approach. But the book also develops other modes of thought that become increasingly vital in these current times of ecological devastation, pandemic isolationism, social disruptions, and climate changes, moving us from antiquity to modernity but fostering a consideration of entanglements with our ecological community. In the end, Adora Tellus Tempori asks us to consider our relationship with the greater body that is all of us, really—this planet that we cannot put on a pedestal or take for granted, but must live with, respect, and nourish as both a means of survival and of living life.

If I could cheekily mock-up a byline for the manuscript in its current stage, it might be something like, "romance poems, history, and particle physics, oh my!"

I am also working on a novel set in the future, which touches on several themes relevant today and moving forward—including ecological and climate issues alongside social breakdown and control. Some of these follow from the extensive research and writing that went into my recent dissertation project about contemporary dystopias, but I have also been working on versions of this novel project for well over a decade, and slowly congealing it into a narrative that I hope will resonate with readers and hold social value.     

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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