was one of the original founders of the Gulf Islands Film and Television School, and is currently the President of the Galiano Island Literary festival
. He's won awards for his screenwriting, poetry, and non-fiction prose. He writes poetry for people who don't like poetry (and those who do). His first collection, All the Broken Things
, is now available from Anvil Press.1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Now that All the Broken Things
is published, doors are opened, people are asking me questions, and I’m being invited to give readings. When people ask me where they can find my work, finally I can tell them, but now I have to start thinking about the next collection.
My recent work deals with the experience of aging, obviously something I couldn’t draw on earlier. I find myself thinking more about family, although as I write this, I’m realizing that my subjects haven’t changed much over the years. I suppose I find life more and more absurd these days. As a result I still find humour everywhere, and I’m still convinced that you don’t have to be solemn to be serious. 2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was having some success as an academic writer, but feeling more and more constrained by the rigours of the genre and the need to get everything exactly right
. I was always drawn to the creative, and while scholarly work has its own form of creativity, it’s limiting. Poetry allowed me to expand my imagination without a limit, so to speak. I took pleasure in writing exactly what I wanted, and the pleasure was delicious. The form seemed to suit me; I could write self-contained miniatures, and understanding what Yeats meant, I think, when he wrote that the corrections of prose are endless (and I would definitely add scholarly writing to that observation) while "a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” For me, there’s nothing so satisfying as that click. I find I can’t leave a poem until I hear it. If the click doesn’t work, I’ll probably abandon the poem.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?
Getting to a writing project always means clearing up all the current detritus of life. At the moment, I’m on the boards of three non-profit societies, and there I’m meeting deadlines for grant proposals and board work. I hate to say it, but it cramps my imagination. I’m looking forward to finishing up a slate of grant writing; creative writing is a huge pleasure, and I tend to feel almost guilty for pursuing it.
First drafts are almost always awful, so I rewrite like crazy. I was still changing words in the final pass on the proofs of All the Broken Things
. As much as anything, I discover the poem in the writing of it. I think of artists carving a piece of stone, and finding the object within it. I carve away at the words until the poem is exposed.4 - Where does a poem or short film script 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’m definitely not working on a “ book” when I begin a poem. Poems usually come quickly, and unexpectedly. I remember hearing Stephen Spender
talk about the “given line,” which is where my poems usually start, rather than with a subject. I’ll find a sentence or phrase in my endless mental chatter that stands out for its rhythm and metaphoric possibilities, and I’ll toss it around in my mind for a while to see if it has legs. I won’t start to write until I think it’s solid. I particularly remember the line that began “My Mother’s Haunting.” I’d been asked to contribute to Crank, a project of Marcus Youssef’s
, and he gave me the word “Clean” to work with. And I found myself thinking “My Mother kept a clean house," and then, out of nowhere, the end of the sentence: "even after she died.” And the rest came easily and quite logically from that given line. Same thing with “The Woman Who Talks To Her Dog At The Beach.” I trust those given lines, and they seem to bear out my trust because they’ll always lead to a click. Having said all that, I do find that I’ll sometimes write one poem and then see the subject from a different angle, and write another; often it will take three poems to get to a larger “click.” With “Mars Variations” it went on for an unusually long time. There’s more to say, and you have to say it, or else things don’t feel finished.
The same sort of process is true of short film scripts. When our daughter was little, we’d play hide and seek under the bed covers, as one does. Pull the covers over Mum’s head and ask “Where’s Mummy?". And one day I thought, what if a little girl pulls back the covers and her Mum is gone? So that became the short film “Hide."5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings. In the past I’ve described myself as a “stand-up poet,” although I’ve never found the discipline to go entirely off book. You write alone, in the shadows, turning words around, aiming for a particular effect, hoping that the micro changes work. You can’t really tell until you hear an audience responding in a way that tells you, yes, I did get it right. They got it. Frisson! 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 have no spiritual beliefs, and I’m deeply suspicious of all religion — all religions seem like an avoidance to me — but I’m fascinated by contemplations of time and infinity. If there’s a question I’m trying to answer, it’s really along the lines of finding ways to express the infinite in a finite medium. I honestly don’t think I answer any questions, and I don’t know what the current questions are, other than puzzling over the precipitous global slide into irrationality, the loss of civility, the opposition to science, the rise of lying. I don’t remember seeing the media using the word “lies” in print to describe a politician’s words until The Worst President Ever opened his mouth. Don’t get me started. I blame it on the Interweb. And I’m still asking the same question about Brexit: What the FUCK?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?
Speak truth to power, always. Make people laugh. Utter the things that terrify you. Stare into the abyss until you start to laugh.8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
With poetry, I don’t find it difficult to work with an editor, but in script writing, it’s a lot more difficult. It's because I’m working with a much larger piece, and every change will pull all sorts of strings and demand all sorts of realignment; often the people who want you to change your work have no idea what the consequences of a change will be. And in film you’re dealing with a budget; all you need for a poem is a piece of paper and something to write with. I once wrote a script in which a man is forced to carry his dead father on his shoulders, forced to find the burial place his dead father is looking for. The father has died, but he’s come back to a sort of zombie existence and will not rest until his son has performed his duty. So I was given a note about the dead father (who almost all men eventually carry on their shoulders) — the controlling metaphor that the whole feature depended on — and the note was “Does the father have to be dead?"9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was an undergraduate at Aberdeen University, we had to read our essays aloud in tutorials. Since then, I read everything I write (more or less) aloud before I let anybody else see it. This is absolutely true with all my poems. Until I hear it out loud, I have no idea if I’m getting it right. So there’s that. Every writer should do the same. Also, George McWhirter
has said that a poem should have an idea and a thing. I think that’s great advice. And in scripts, it’s different, because there is a narrative to consider, and you have to keep that engine running the whole time. There’s a film by John Sayles called Honeydripper
. The main character has just solved one problem when a car draws up outside. He says “Now what?” And that’s the perfect way to describe how that narrative machine has to work. You’re always trying to make the audience, as well as your characters ask that question: “Now what?"10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to film scripts)? What do you see as the appeal?
I found that there’s a real similarity to the way you have to use language in poetry and in scripts: you need to say as much as possible with the fewest words, so your word choice is crucial. Every word, every piece of punctuation has to do some very heavy lifting. In that sense, my process is similar. Where there are enormous differences is in the demands of narrative and, as I mentioned earlier, the damn budget. I wrote a short script based on a poem. Cost of writing the poem: zero. A ten minute film based on the poem cost $30,000. And that wasn’t anything like enough. On the other hand I was paid well for the script — not the whole $30K, you understand! Thank you BC Film and the CBC.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, but when I do get to writing, I often find that first I have to deal with the ideas that have piled up since the last time I sat down. If there’s a “given line” involved, and it feels as if it has legs, I’ll sit down wherever/whenever and get it down before I forget.12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I look for distractions so as not to get trapped in the stall. Since I’m usually working on several projects simultaneously, I’ll pull out one of those. Changing direction helps — going back over a text rather than trying to make forward progress. Often I’ll discover a word of phrase that I’ve somehow missed in terms of its potential. See above: the statue thing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’ve had a lot of different homes in different places. There’s no one fragrance. Sevilla in southern Spain was our home for a year. In spring, the streets are filled with the scent of orange blossoms. 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?
Books are only a minor part of it for me, despite a background which involved the standard canon of the whole of English Literature, Beowulf
till the present, and that’s a lot of books. I have to admit I don’t read a lot of poetry. There are the blissfully disturbing films of Roy Andersson, and when it comes to music, I’m like Jenny in Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll.”
I sometimes find subjects in science writing which appeal to me, often because the writers (and I’m talking about science writers explaining things for dummies like me) are forced to resort to metaphors when things get sticky. That I can understand. The photography of Cindy Sherman
… I saw a riveting retrospective of the work of Paula Rego
a couple of years ago… Writers who’ve influenced me? It’s more what I’m reading at the time. I move on from writers, but some stay with me. Eliot. Waugh (for me the funniest fiction writer in the English language), David Sedaris
, Amy Sedaris
, because she seems to have refreshingly little in the way of a filter, Eddie Izzard
, J.G. Ballard
, Ishiguru, Zadie Smith
… Don’t get me started. 15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Lately I’ve been reading the poetry of Miranda Pearson
, Alex Oliver
, Gary Geddes
, and Hilary Peach
, and bill bissett
remains a major source of inspiration in life and art. I recommend the film work of Andrew Struthers
to people at every opportunity. The man’s a genius. Galiano’s Michael Christie’s Greenwood
is extraordinarily good. As is Cedar Bowers’ Astra
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Meeting Roy Andersson
would be high on the list. I’d love to get a feature to the screen. But mainly I’m content. There’s all the writing I haven’t done yet, though I’ve no idea what it will be. I’d like to be able to apologize to Loudon Wainwright
, but that’s another story.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 could have been a lawyer — I was on that path for a while. And I could have stuck with teaching English Literature. But poetry’s where the big bucks are, let’s face it.18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s what I think I can do best. Not that I’m the best at it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?Klara and the Sun
, which I just finished a few days ago. I’m still haunted by the final scene. Ishiguru writes sadness so well, and yet he’s never depressing. Poor Klara may be the most optimistic character in fiction. In film it’s a tie between Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing Under the Skin
, the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man
, and Roy Andersson’s deeply moving You, the Living
. Nothing’s come close to those in the last few years, but there’s so much I haven’t seen. I’m half way through A Carnival of Snackery
, which dragged my attention away from Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle
. I’ll get back to it, I promise. But Sedaris is so seductive! What to do? What to do?20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got two features I’m constantly revising, and there’s some poems bubbling. But there's a few major grant applications for the Galiano Island Literary Festival and the Galiano Island Affordable Living Initiative Society I’d better get on with first.12 or 20 (second series) questions;