Andrew DuBois is the author or co-editor of six books. He's been a professor at U of T for 17 years. He now lives in Carbonear, Newfoundland, where he runs the Green Door Book Store.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
These are poems I wrote over the last 27 years (the majority of them when I was in my twenties and early thirties), so you see all kinds of versions of yourself, and also the through-lines of your life, which is unnerving, but also sometimes makes you proud of your own semi-conscious self-perceptions. The poems predict the life. It does feel a bit different than my other books. I thought they were personal, and of course they were, but this is more personal. On a practical level, my first book probably helped me secure my job and the next two helped me maintain it. They all meant a lot to me when I was working on them—still do. One of them was really detrimental to my life. I don’t yet know what treasures this one holds in store. Hopefully a small handful of satisfied readers.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was 9 or 10, I wrote some pretty long stories (I never write fiction now), which I called “novels,” about breakdancing or in a Mack Bolan vein. Classic work. Then I started writing poetry, a lot of it inspired by song lyrics and my feelings (and by a native feeling for words and form), but it seems like coming across Eliot, Ginsberg, and Plath really got me seriously into poetry. Since then I’ve been reading and writing poetry with fairly extreme purposefulness. Actually, it seems like I’ve always been writing; it’s hard to remember when I wasn’t.
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’d say, slowly then quickly. It’s as if I haven’t really even started, other than to start sitting around and start thinking about it. Jotting down sentences or words. Maybe making some vague outline. Schemes and dreams and plans and things. Writing stuff down, staring at it. Some phrase that crystallizes an event that bothers me: “mispronouncing amygdala,” “the opposite of an isthmus.” Then it all kind of accumulates. Then when it gains momentum and the shape can be seen it starts locking into place. Then if I can afford to, I let it sit and I marinate on it. Then when I go back to it, I edit the hell out of if it seems to need it, or if I seem to need it—getting intimate with my “interior paramour.” Sometimes it’s in pretty good shape already, which is nice, and makes you feel like you derive from the infinite. Tinkering with it incessantly is also a pleasure, a socially acceptable private form of narcissism that I can also pass off as hard work and discipline.
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?
Usually a particular phrase will come to my mind, and as I said it will seem to crystalize something that is bothering me or that I’ve been thinking about, and then I’ll work backward from that phrase to find the rest of the best way to say what it is that’s been bothering me that I couldn’t articulate before. (Every once in a while, it will be an image instead of a phrase—a yellow tulip, a broken plate, a ball of rubber bands, big cartoon balloons, a coffin with a flag draped over it, the nests you see in trees after the leaves have fallen.) Sometimes it’s a love poem. And sometimes those pieces are part of a larger, longer pattern of thinking, and that might coalesce into a book. But I don’t think individual poems tend to benefit from being thought of beforehand as part of a book that doesn’t exist even before the poem doesn’t. There are some great “project” books, or even organic books, books that had to be books, of course. The potential downside of it is thinking in terms of grants and a too-easy explainability even before the poems are written. It all depends, I guess. Cart, horse; proof, pudding; kettle, pot. I’ve done it myself, on a smaller scale, perhaps—not with this book, but with others. Maybe it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Whatever I say is bad I usually end up doing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Not part of the process, and I don’t do many readings; they make me nervous, on occasion ill, although maybe not as much as they used to. It’s hard to say. It’s been a long time since I’ve done one in person. I’ve only done a few of them. I’m so hungry to get out of the house that if I had to read a couple of poems out loud to justify hanging out in a pub all night with friends, I’d leap at the chance.
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?
Since I used to like to read Theory you’d think so, but I’m just not a theoretical thinker (which is hard on my ego, because I associate theory with being “smart”), and that is most manifest in my poetry. In poems, I’m trying to answer for myself why I think and feel as I do. Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “No matter what theories one may have, I doubt very much that they are in one’s mind at the moment of writing a poem or that there is even a physical possibility that there could be.” (That physical is interesting—I think I understand her.) Obviously this depends on the poet. Whenever I have written a purposefully “theoretical” poem it has been terrible. But I do think about literature qua literature theoretically, in the quiet moments, and also when I teach and write reviews. That doubtless makes its way into the poems somehow.
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 writer is an archetype, an august figure of greatness and potential, flawed but creative, a lesser God, a larger person, an unkillable idea. The writer accommodates everything the culture imbues it with; at every given moment, profits from and is periodically destroyed by it; withers at worst, recovers at best; perseveres; and doesn’t have a damn thing to do about it, but write, and even that is contingent on life, which is volatile and fleeting.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. I mean, the editors aren’t usually difficult (now, every once in a while, there is an exception that proves the rule). They tend to be smart and professional—they’re editors, after all; that’s already a particular personality type, somebody attentive but who isn’t desperate for attention and who in a sense is meant to serve. Still, it’s difficult to be edited, ego-wise. But yeah, it may be essential; except it should be way less essential for poetry. Some of this stuff these days is way over-edited, you can feel it. It’s like it’s been run through a computer program, or some kind of program. But who’s doing the programming? (Then again, a lot of it is sloppy.) You don’t want your poems to be written for you. A poetry editor better have heavy knowledge, a light touch, and your true best interests at heart. I had an editor like that for this book. Plus, they can help you see the structure of the thing.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This isn’t advice per se, but about 25 years ago, when I was on a little hubristic streak, someone who loved me said, “You’ll never be as smart as you think you are now.” And my psychiatrist always tells me to take walks, which I guess is the best advice. “Him first makes mad whom the Gods them would destroy.” “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” Stuff like that. Old fashioned advice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s been easy in a way, as I write both poetry and about poetry and those both seem like two related things that I just naturally tend to do. But for a long time, if I’m being honest, it has seemed easier to write criticism than poetry. Not easier in terms of work and time, but in terms of the spirit. Poetry, craft though it no doubt is, has more to do with inspiration and that is hard for me to come by. And I can write a “pretty good,” competent review or critical essay and live with that (although I aspire to a higher batting average and think that I often achieve it), whereas if I know a poem is uninspired, I won’t let it see the light of day, or regret when I do. (Which is not to say my poems aren’t mediocre—eye of the beholder, etc.) Maybe that’s because the critical prose is first beholden to the texts under discussion, which is a consoling displacement, and is usually being written for some circumstance or person in particular, a symposium or a journal or an editor, under a deadline, however loose, and you can’t be overly precious about it after a while; whereas the poetry is some precious thing that is wholly mine and that I almost see as standing in rebuke to the daily demands of the world and sometimes even the existence of other people, including myself.
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. I could concoct one without dissembling if I followed the trails of my days, but it’d really be post facto. That often (but not always) makes me feel lazy thus guilty (and it is undisciplined, I grant you) but then again, things do manage to get written somehow. It tends to always add up. I’ve never had a big problem producing. My life isn’t very compartmentalized—it’s about as organic as a humuus heap, or at least a garbage dump—and I don’t have kids (which I gather from friends are time consuming, albeit rewarding on occasion), so other than when I’m teaching or grading or prepping or writing rec letters or having meetings or office hours or answering emails or whatnot, or dealing with extra-professional problems (of which there are no shortage), if I want to write something badly enough, there’s a big window in which to do it. Yeah, I really should get a routine.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Art, music, travel, language, love, the natural world and non-debilitating conflict are my go-to inspirations.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of creek water running over limestone.
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?
When I was trying to figure what abstraction meant in poetry, the Abstract Expressionists were personally important, first Pollock and Newman, then especially Rothko. Of course, they’re beautiful, and profound (in their paintings, that is). Warhol’s repetitions were interesting, the flat affect. Larry Rivers, smudging into representation. Helen Frankenthaler, more my speed these days, the way she soaks it all in. Basquiat became an influence, at least in my mind—he was like music, something I just liked. Definitely Donald Judd (especially Donald Judd—but again, only in my mind, not so much in my work) and later Agnes Martin. Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain. Duchamp is in a couple of the poems, uncharacteristically explicitly. Probably Duchamp and Netherlandish art the most. Still life with lemon. Devotional triptychs and diptychs. Rogier van derWeyden impacted my life quite deeply, the drapery, the reds and blues. Odds and ends: The Ghent Altarpiece. Carvings. Quilts. A whittled birdcage.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Apart from my family and a few old friends, the people who I’ve loved the most and loved me the most and hurt me the most and vice versa have been writers, so that’s a big and sensitive question. Writing in general has been the most consistent and important “thing” in my life and is inextricable from it. I know it’s boring not to be specific but there are just too many answers. I guess the single most important dead writer in my life has been John Ashbery (although he wasn’t always dead) and whoever wrote The Bible. For the last several years it’s been Elizabeth Bishop. She’s one of the few people I know I can trust.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’ve done almost everything I ever dreamed of doing, so I’m standing pat for now. But then again, I’m hoping every day that new urges will arise and when they do, I’ll do those things too, if I can swing it. I might even do some things again that I enjoyed the first time I did them. Mainly, I desperately want to want something again.
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?
Librarian or travel agent. If it was to be something genuinely noble, that I also think I might have a potential facility for, it would be to help young adults with mental and developmental challenges in a clinical or therapeutic setting—but that would be incredibly draining and hard, and would entail a lot of training and dedication, which is why I admire those people who do it. I did always want to be a shopkeep, and for a couple of years now I’ve run a book and record store in Carbonear, Newfoundland, which is extremely rewarding, if not exactly remunerative.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I suppose I both do something else and not do something else, since I make my living as a professor, which entails a good deal of writing, as well as a good deal of otherwise; and also allows for time to write, and not just “professor” things. (But then, real writers will take time to write, even in the midst of chaos, the way a hawk will take a snake or hare, in my experience of writers.) What made me write is an almost lifelong natural compulsion that is hard for me to understand but that must stem from some sense that writing is a way to get somewhere worth getting to. It has something to do with aspiration, achievement, communication, and self-revelation.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A couple of months ago I read David Ferry’s version of Gilgamesh. That was great. Before that, I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal and then Sleepless Nights. Those were great. The last great film I watched was the orchid scene in The Big Sleep, the very end of The Maltese Falcon, and the last twenty minutes of I Want to Live! Oh, and Black Narcissus. That’s the last movie I watched from beginning to end, if you don’t count the new Bill and Ted, which made me cry.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Three things: co-editing a collection of Charles Whibley’s essays; a book about Anita Loos and her hats; and trying to write a few poems about some stuff that happened to me.