Douglas Burnet Smith is the GG Award–nominated author, and Burden is his seventeenth book of poetry. He divides his time between Atlantic Canada and Athens, Greece. He is currently Writer-in-Residence for the Antikythera Archeological Dive Project on the island of Antikythera, Greece, and teaches in the English Department at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The publication of my first book, Thaw (Four Humours Press), a beautiful little creature produced on an offset press and on fine Italian, hand-sewn paper, with illustrations by Suzanne Gautier, made me proud I could share my work with readers. My most recent work, Burden (Oskana), about the execution of a seventeen year old British soldier for desertion during World War I, and told in the voice of a distant relative, Lance Corporal Reg Smith, who, it would seem from his letters home from the front, was ordered to be a member of the firing squad, is similar to an earlier work, The Killed (Wolsak & Wynn), about the siege of Sarajevo, in its book-length narrative drive in sequence. But it’s different from most other earlier works which are more personal lyrics, though even many of them tend to be longish, narrative-orientated pieces.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry first by having read Keats in high school and was blown away. I wasn’t affected by fiction or non-fiction nearly as strongly.
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?
Once the germ of an idea takes hold, I can begin writing. I usually know if it’s going to be a book-length sequence right away. I write endless drafts until, alas, the work’s completion, which is really its abandonment.
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 usually begins with a phrase, an image, a snippet of conversation, whatever. I do write shorter pieces that end up combined in a book, and also longer book-length narrative works that I know right away will constitute an entire book.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to do lots of public readings, in Canada and abroad. I enjoyed them immensely. But now I do fewer. I’m happy to stay home and read and write, whether I’m in Nova Scotia, or Greece, where I spend part of the year.
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 don’t have specific theoretical concerns behind my work. I don’t try to answer any general, philosophical or literary questions. Maybe THE current (sad) question is, “Should a writer even bother trying to inhabit a consciousness different from his/her/their own?”
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 writer’s role in larger culture can be many things, using a selection of linguistic antennae: aesthetic/moral/political/philosophical, etc.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with terrifically gifted writers as my editors, so I have found it both necessary and pleasurable.
What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice I’ve heard, and I take it as not necessarily meaning literary advice, is “Don’t let your short-term greed get in the way of your long-term greed.”
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 write sporadically, but once a long project is underway, I write daily, compulsively, until it’s done. A typical day in Canada begins by driving my daughter to school, returning home to make breakfast for my wife and myself, then to read—and write, if the spirit moves me. When I’m in Greece I’m usually alone, so every day begins with 4 or 5 hours of writing poems. The day can end the same way.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When the writing gets stalled, I just wait. Sometimes patiently, sometimes not. But something somehow always re-starts the engine.
What fragrance reminds you of home?
What fragrance reminds me of home? If by home you mean where I grew up, in Winnipeg, the smell of farmers burning their fields in autumn.
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?
All of those—nature, music, science, music, and visual art inform my work. Especially the latter two.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Great writing about sport matters a lot to me.
What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to visit Machu Picchu. And watch Rafael Nadal play tennis in person before he retires.
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?
Archaeologist. Or maybe a surfer?
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing was the only thing I was good at.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
What are you currently working on?
Poems and short stories set in Greece.