Tyler Engström wrote some poems once that got him a free plane ticket to Toronto. He went to Toronto and got lost. He was supposed to be at a dinner. When he finally got to dinner he met some people he hadn’t met before. One of them was Domenica Martinello. She didn’t expect him to be so tall. He photographs as average or below average height (she did not say that part but did say she didn’t expect him to be so tall). Tyler spent a couple days in Toronto and then went back to Calgary, where he lives. He wrote more poems. After a while he put them into a book. The book is called Think of How Old We Could Get and is available from Frontenac House. It’s not about getting old, but studies show it cures ageing (studies do not show this). Studies also show people who read it are 79% happier (studies also do not show this). Now Tyler spends his time convincing people to read his book. Studies show there are poems of Tyler’s you can read in online literary magazines. Studies show you can find them, they’re out there. There are a lot of studies.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Think of How Old We Could Get is my first book. How has it changed my life? Well, I can apply for things that require you to have a published book, that’s number one. Number two: now people can say mean things to me on Goodreads, if they feel like it. I suppose they could have before, but now they can do it as part of a book review instead of directly to me. Writing a book is like creating a narrator, people can say and think whatever they want about it (the book) and you can say “oh, they’re talking about the book, not me, I’m not the book, by the way.” Nobody has accused me of being the book, but it could happen. Nobody has been mean to me on Goodreads either, but I’d be honoured if they were. I’m speaking the possibility of it into existence. What’s the saying? There’s no such thing as bad publicity? Well, there’s no such thing as a bad review. Actually, I guess that isn’t true. Or maybe it is. Anyways.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I come from a long line of poets. My father was a poet. My grandfather was a poet. My great grandfather was a poet. None of this is true, but I suppose it could be, I never asked any of them. I didn’t really come to poetry as opposed to anything else. My poems are fiction, and non-fiction, and some of them are actually short stories, and others are ideas for novels that reasonably pass as poems. I prefer things that are shorter because it doesn’t take me very long to express an idea or what I’m thinking of, unless I’m intentionally drawing it out. In a poem I can get through a whole event in under a page, in a novel it takes 150 pages and half of that is just people walking from one place to another and talking to each other about the places they’re walking to and from and what they’re thinking about while they’re walking. My poems also include walking though, if that’s something you’re into.
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?
Outside of a tweak here or there, changing a word, changing a break or whatever, most of my writing is nearly identical to the first draft which I wrote in a single moment, usually on my phone. Something reminds me of something else, or of itself, or of an idea, and I start writing until I’m done writing about it. Once I’m done, it’s either good or bad to me. I trash it if it’s bad. If it’s good, I might workshop it. If it’s good for other people too, that’s a bonus. But, some things are really only good to me, and I still keep them. I figure there’s at least one other person that will also think it’s good and then keeping the poem or story or whatever it is was worthwhile.
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?
Everything comes in pieces and I suppose poems start at the start. I didn’t think of having a book in the beginning. I’m trying to create some order to it now, but I find that any time I try to do anything, I end up ruining the “creative process” aka my ability to “write good.” I can always tell when I’m trying to do something instead of something just occurring naturally, and it’s embarrassing to me to read those pieces. Imagine you’re a teenager and you enter the talent show and you have this whole dance planned and you’re thinking, “yeah, this is the coolest thing, everyone will think this is cool,” and you do it and nobody really thinks it’s cool but it’s whatever. Then you watch the video years later and think, “holy fuck, I would like to die.” That’s how I feel whenever I read a poem where I tried to force it to “do” something, like incorporate some political message, or something. I’ve learned not to force that stuff. That stuff is in there, but I try never to sit down to make the point of the poem.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
In a perfect world, I would never read anything in public. Unless they gave me an Amazon Prime special. I saw that Rupi Kaur got an Amazon Prime special. I would read in public for that. I’d like to have entrance music and some stage props. Maybe some openers, maybe a band where I try to quietly read over what they’re playing but it doesn’t match so people grow increasingly confused and start asking each other, “what’s happening? Is this guy for real?” and then eventually they realise I am for real and it’s a bit but they’re embarrassed that they didnt know it was a bit so it’s hard for them to really relax and enjoy themselves but when people ask them about it the next day they don’t want to feel stupid for not getting it so they say, “oh my God, it was SO good!” and so other people come to see me read and have the same experience and then, eventually, it’s just wave after wave of people having this frustrating and confusing experience but nobody is brave enough to say anything bad about it. Yeah, actually, that sounds great. I change my answer: in a perfect world, I would have an Amazon Prime special like Rupi Kaur.
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 try to keep my concerns and my questions very simple and humble, things like: What’s the meaning of all this? Does life have any point at all? Is there any value in art? You know, basic stuff. I think I’ve successfully answered it all but people will have to read the book to find out. The answers: may shock you. Get yours for the low, low price of whatever price my book is.
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?
I don’t think there is any one role a writer has. For some, it’s to entertain. For others, it’s a form of protest. For others, it’s to give people a way to understand their own feelings and experience by putting words to it. I think those are all worthwhile things and I think it’s great that writers inhabit these areas, but I also think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to fill even one of these roles if you don’t want to. It’s ok just to write for yourself and be done with it. For me, the role of the writer is to promote the spicy yet smooth taste and comforting body feel of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. Fireball Cinnamon Whisky: Tastes like heaven, burns like hell. Brought to you by the Sazerac Company.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. It’s difficult when they don’t understand your work or what you’re going for. It’s incredibly easy when they do. Micheline Maylor is the best editor anyone in the history of writing could ask for (and a phenomenal writer, maybe those things go hand in hand). I’m very lucky that she edited my book. It was the main reason I went with Frontenac House as a publisher. I think having the right editor is essential. But I think having the wrong editor is worse than not having one.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - 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 have two small kids and an old house with a long list of things to fix, and a full-time job. Today I changed the cabin air filter on my car. But now it’s rattling. So I’m doing this, and then later, I will stick my hand in a blower mower and try to fish out a leaf… or a dead mouse… or something. My wife is the best, though. She’ll carve out time for me to write when I don’t. Other than that, I mostly jot poems down on my phone as they come to me. Then, when I have the time, I put them into Google Docs. Then I change the font to Garamond or something hi-brow like that and see if I’m impressed by myself. If I am, I keep it. If I’m not, I trash it. Then I make dinner, or something. I’m impressed by people who have routines and little quirks around their writing. I hear all the time about writing corners or whole rooms. My office has my tool chest and a water rower in it (the water rower was free, I’m not rich, don’t worry), I don’t have room for a writing room. I remember reading this one writer talk about how they had their own writing space and their whole process was some sort of meditation ritual. They even talked about lighting a candle just out of view, something about the eternal flame of creativity or whatever, I’m sure. I remember laughing when I heard it because it was so ridiculous to me but at the same time, that’s cool if you have time and space on your side. I have neither. Also, time is a flat circle. I like to think my routine is not that of a “writer” but some average person who writes. Shout out to average people. If I get that Amazon Prime special I’ll upgrade myself and start lighting candles or something.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled I read. Writers like James Tate, Frank O’Hara, Maggie Nelson, Richard Brautigan, Franz Kafka. There’s a ton more. When I’m stalled I need to read something that kicks my mind back in a place where anything can happen and things don’t have to be any one way. Sometimes I also read some of my own poems, ones I like best. That’s not because I want to bask in myself, or anything, but sometimes the best way to reset your brain is to re-read something you wrote. Your brain fills in how you got there. Actually, mine does. I don’t know your brain.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have a terrible sense of smell. Oh, actually, I change my answer: Polo by Ralph Lauren. The one in the green bottle. It stinks. It’s like a blanket.
13 - 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?
Nature, sure. The way people interact with nature in an unconscious way. You and an ant are living your life in a parallel fashion, both completely unaware of the other, until you step on the ant and kill it. Stuff like that bothers me. I don’t want to say it inspires me, because that makes me sound insane, so I’ll say it “bothers” me. Music is also inspiring. I often hear my poems in my head following a distinct rhythm even if I haven’t written them that way, and sometimes I’ll be inspired by a particular flow of the words of a particular song. Modern art also has a very large influence in my work. I enjoy sitting in front of something and not know what it’s supposed to mean, or be, and bringing my own self to my understanding of it, before I actually read about what it is and go, “ah, I was way off.” I don’t care as much for paintings that are what they are. I guess I write that way, mostly. I’m not painting. I’m putting a broken toilet in the middle of the room. Enjoy. Though sometimes it really is just a broken toilet.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers most important to my work and my life outside of “the work” are the writers I’ve “come up” with. I don’t know many writers personally, and even fewer outside of a few encounters here and there, but the ones I do know are really phenomenal. Matt Sutton is one of my favourite living writers because he writes so honestly and is very care-free about it. He knows what he wants to do and does it, and if someone doesn’t get it, they don’t get it. He’s not trying to please anyone but himself and I think that’s the way it should be. It’s a good reminder. I hope one day people get to experience a whole book of his stuff. Though, like a lot of the writers I know, writing is a part of who they are but it’s not the whole thing. Books and publications aren’t the singular focus. “Being” a writer isn’t what it’s about. They’re just excellent writers living their lives and writing in the margins of it. The group of people I hang with and love, I don’t have to name them all because they know who they are, but there’s the next great Canadian writer in that mix, I’m sure of it.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to find the steakhouse from the movie The Great Outdoors starring John Candy and Dan Aykroyd and eat the “Old 96’er.” I think a lot of people would be impressed if I could eat a 96 oz steak. If that doesn’t exist, maybe I’ll legally change my name to Chet (or Roman, or Buck, a lot of great names in the movie) and eat several smaller, more manageable steaks until people are equally as impressed as they would’ve been had I eaten the Old 96’er, which is, again, a 96 oz steak.
16 - 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?
Whatever the adult children on Succession do. That seems cool. They seem happy.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The money, obviously.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
It’s been a year or so since I read it, but Daniil and Vanya by Marie-Hélène Larochelle was probably one of the best books I’ve read, period. I still think about it every couple of weeks. I don’t watch too many movies because I only get 3-4 hours of sleep per night and movies knock me out, but Uncut Gems made me physically uncomfortable, and I think any time any piece of art can make you physically uncomfortable without relying on cheap tricks, it’s great.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on my second book. I’m not entirely sure what it will be. Maybe a novelization of a movie. Can anyone do that? Do you need permission? I’ll do that. “Fast and Furious 9: The Movie: The Novel.” Or maybe a sequel to someone else’s book. What’s popular? Do people still like The Handmaid's Tale? That’s a show, too, right? I’ll do a sequel to that. That’s a great idea actually.