Saturday, September 11, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Stephan Torre

Stephan Torre's [photo credit: Judy Currelly] formative years were spent in western Montana, the northern California coast and British Columbia. Though he’s lived largely off-grid and in rural locations, his diverse working life includes college teaching, counseling and family services, farming, logging and construction. His latest book is Red Obsidian: New and Selected Poems, from University of Regina Press. Stephan lives in British Columbia.

1.     How did your first book or chapbook change your life?  How does your most recent work compare to your previous?

As the lizard must slough its skin to keep from choking, putting one’s heart prints out on a sunlit stone slab allows one to breath more freely.

I hope there’s more depth in more recent poems.  If not, then they’re not worth reading.  If a writer’s work doesn’t deepen with practice, something’s wrong.

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

I was jammed up against the back wall of my high school English class, failing and writing stupid rock-and-roll songs at fifteen—songs I used to sing to my girlfriend over a pay telephone at night—until one day my teacher put on a record of Dylan Thomas, and I said to myself, “Holy shit, some dude does this with language—electrifies all the senses?”  From that day forward I was intimidated, inspired, and afflicted.  Sound and sensory involvement are more compressed and dominant in poetry, and that, besides probably my being too lazy for fiction, kept me from prose.  Although now, because prose writers, particularly nature writers, interest me more than poets, I sometimes regret that I didn’t take that path.  I do write short prose pieces, and I still love writing critical prose, but I’ve not spent any time trying to publish it.  I have too many distractions like catching fish and making things out of wood.  Still, I hope there’s time to publish some prose, at least some short prose.

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?

How often must the lizard slough its skin?  Maybe for them, and for others, it’s predictable.  But for me writing comes when it must, when it’s too hard to hold in the joy or grief without blurting it out.  There’s no pattern as to how or when this happens.  Once in a while old notes seem to have enough juice to rekindle, but usually the poem won’t come from dried fruit.  When your lungs seem to be full of a windy fragrance out of the woods and pushing you to trust what’s making weasel tracks on the page, it’s a special feeling, orgasmic, but I’m not sure those exuberant lines are more fulfilling than the glossy little buttons carved out of a moose antler.

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?

What the heck is a “book” of poems?  Unless you’ve conceived an epic, or a sequence of poems with a thematic relationship, imagining the poem as part of a book like a plank in a skiff is foreign to me.  The poem one is writing—is “working on” as an Inuit carver is making a toggle for his dog team—is not part of something greater than itself.  It’s a journal note, or lyric ejaculation, a punctuation in time, a waterbird track on the riverbank.  I guess for fiction writers it’s planned as an artifact with pages and characters on a journey with, or in spite of, the author, and for non-fiction writers, a project of investigation with urgency.  Poems, certainly lyric poems but even most narrative poems, come from an ecstatic surplus of joy or grief which one can no longer hold in one’s veins or keep secret. 

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

I turned away from the public activities and literary scene of poetry, especially when I began working with disadvantaged and criminal populations, which work seemed to have more relevance.  Prior to that I loved readings, and I’ve missed it—the performance— regardless of whose poetry I was reading.  Reading the poem aloud gives it breath, sometimes wings, but it definitely completes the transaction with a nebulous audience.

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?

My academic background once constrained me with theoretical concerns, which now have little or no influence, though I’m sure they’ve made their impact.  Eventually my graduate work was on Indigenous oral composers whose role in community was important but humble and grounded in shared struggles and environment.  The culture I toss my poems into is fractured, divorced from nature, frightened, and addicted to technology.  I’m not sure I have the language, or generative questions, for it.  Although poetry must ask—must intensify—the most important questions for a community, the poet must first ask them of him or herself, and ask them boldly.  I’m sure I’m still lagging on both accounts.

7.     What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture?  Do they even have one?  What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Surely the writer’s first duty is to peel away the hyperbolic vellum of personal “identity;” secondly, in his or her nakedness, it’s to refract experience and common struggles with clarity; thirdly to refreshen inescapable truths that writers and philosophers have left in the cobwebs of history.

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

It of course depends on the editor.  Though not “essential,” a “difficult” editor is probably a damn good one.  My recent experience with an editor was productive and pleasurable.  Had it been more difficult, more challenging, I may even have learned more, but it helped me looked harder at the poems, which I appreciated.  My wife, a painter and sharp reader, is my best critic because she’s “difficult” and not prone to easy praise.

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

“If you ain’t scared, you ain’t right.”

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

I haven’t written a review for a long time, and don’t know that I’m likely to.  But I think it’s important to celebrate vital and often obscure work, and it’s critical to expose the lack of authenticity of those whose celebration is exaggerated or unwarranted.

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 don’t have a routine.  It depends, and unfolds differently, especially whether or not I’m in a wild place.  Nevertheless, it’s usually with some aches and moderate pain, a strong cup of coffee, and gratitude—lots of gratitude—for waking again into an exceptionally fortunate life.

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

As I said earlier, I don’t write until I can’t help myself, and even then, I don’t force it.  I’ve addressed that question a number of times in poems.  As I’ve quoted Bly from a time when I was with him years ago, “When you have to write it down, the source is drying up.”

13.    What fragrance reminds you of home?

My wife, and the sap of conifers.

14.    David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science, or visual arts?

Books are critical but not the source. Some books, some relatively few writers, emit the sparks that we follow back to their source, the few who have left fires burning that throw sparks which intimidate, stun, and inspire us.  We first forge our lives, and build a fire, before we can make sparks. There’s always a detectable blood beat in a strong writer’s prose and prosody, a pulse that grabs and excites and keeps tingling.  Most writers, however earnest and sincere or clever and entertaining, move through our lives like strangers at the fairgrounds.

We make our fires out of many fuels.  Plenty of nonliterate fires guide and inspire our travels and motivate us to forge our lives, and consequently our pages.

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

By now you’re surely understanding that writing is not my primary work, but an urgency, perhaps an affliction—a consequence of my life.  Central, not secondary, but not how I define myself.  Many poets call writing their “work,” and they have academic careers to reinforce that notion.  Though I did teach for a while (and loved teaching subjects other than poetry writing), I turned away from that career.  As for writers who are important to me, there are too many to start mentioning.  After a saturation in the English canon, followed by the Imagist liberation, and translation of Latin, European, and Asian literature, there was TuFu  and the T’ang poets, Japanese poets Hitomaro and Muso; Americans Roethke, James Wright, and Merwin, Latins Neruda and Juarroz.  Just so many.  My favorite and most inspiring book is The Wishing Bone Cycle, work gathered and translated from the Manitoba Cree by Howard Norman.  I find more poetry in some paragraphs of Annie Proulx than in most poetry, and more real inspiration in nature writers like Robert MacFarlane. 

16.   What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

Finish a bunch of woodworking projects from logs I salvaged and slabbed years ago, fish and explore the BC coastal waters, take my grandsons boat camping, feel the breath come for another long poem.

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?

If I hadn’t started writing poetry in my teens I probably would have gotten locked up.  Had I better managed my passions and distractions, I would have written environmental prose. 

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

As you can see, the “something elses” have more than competed for my energy.  I’ve logged, built houses, farmed, taught, counseled kids and criminals.  Every activity has been punctuated by an immersion in wild country, and wild water.  Despite all this I’m driven to scribble in my journal.

19.   What was the last great book you read?

Underland by Robert Macfarlane.

12or 20 (second series) questions;

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