Michael Fraser is published in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2013 and 2018. He has won numerous awards, including Freefall Magazine’s 2014 and 2015 poetry contests, the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize, and the 2018 Gwendolyn Macewen Poetry Competition. The Day-Breakers (Biblioasis 2022) is his third poetry collection.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
There was the natural sense of immense accomplishment which immeasurably boosts one’s confidence to the stratosphere! It’s essentially impossible to truly describe that raw visceral and unprecedented glow you have when you see your name on the cover of your first book. It changed my life because it fully affirmed my place among the poetry community. Family, friends, and work colleagues also began to respect my writing endeavours if they hadn’t previously. My most recent book, The Day-Breakers, explores the experiences of African-Canadians who fought in the American Civil War which is vastly different from my first book, The Serenity of Stone, which was an amalgamation of my various life experiences up to that point. My most recent poems (that aren’t it book form) range from gauging the zeitgeist of current African-Canadian media representations to a series of ekphrastic poems, to travel poems, to current life experiences. My current poems are stylistically different from earlier work! I eschewed punctuation, capital letters, and upper case “I” in my first book, The Serenity of Stone. Punctuation emerged in my second book, To Greet Yourself Arriving, and has remained. I explore a wide range of subject matter, but at my core, I consider myself more Confessional than anything else.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My journey to poetry is quite a remarkably unlikely one. I was born in Grenada. My mom had an opportunity to work as a domestic in Canada and left me with my godmother when I was one. I came to Toronto when I was five. I grew up in an abusive environment and subsequently was a violent child in a rough neighbourhood. I knew how to open doors with a credit card when I was six and constantly stole chips and chocolate bars from variety stores until I was caught. I was placed in a “special” class at school and was proud of my fighting skills. Luckily, we moved to Edmonton when I was seven. I was supposed to start grade two at Our Lady of Mount Carmel but was illiterate and combative. They literally moved my desk from the grade two class into the grade one class. Thus, I failed grade one. It was Catholic school and I spent roughly an hour each day learning to read with nuns! Yes, nuns saved my life! We returned to Toronto when I was 14. I started writing poems for my crushes, completely unrequited of course. My high school English teacher suggested I join James Deahl’s poetry workshop at the public library, and that’s how my poetic journey commenced.
I remember showing up with photocopies of my poems which were summarily ripped to shreds during the workshopping process. It took every ounce of courage and fortitude to return the following week, but I did, and that’s when I truly took my first incipient steps towards become a poet. Poets Judith Stuart and Jennifer Footman were also workshop members and their workshop suggests quickly advanced my knowledge and poetic skills. James Deahl was my first mentor and he literally introduced me to the contemporary poetry world. I learned about literary journals, quarterlies, contests, and how to submit to journals. I attended my first poetry readings and was introduced to the likes of: Allan Briesmaster, Heather Cadsby, Maria Jacobs, Beverley Daurio, Donna Langevin, Pam Oxendine, Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, Libby Scheier, and so many others. In retrospect, I was ridiculously lucky to have James Deahl as my guide and sagacious poetic guru. He had lived with Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn Macewen when he was younger. Talk about being surrounded by genius! I must confess it took me a few months before I attended Deahl’s library workshop. I was 17 and foolish. I arrived just prior to the last few sessions. My poetic journey would have been drastically different or nonexistent without Deahl’s library workshop!
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?
It doesn’t take long to commence a planned writing project. I’ll usually begin once the notion is conceived. Some writing projects are accidental in nature. For example, I initially wrote four Civil War poems before I conceived of an actual writing project of Civil War poems. My writing pace is contingent on the specific poem I’m writing. Some poems magically appear as if gifted by the Muse and others are laborious. I find I’ve become naturally more efficient at editing while I compose initial drafts. Thus, I require less drafts than when I was younger.
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?
Again, it’s all contingent on the poem. Some are derived from ideas, images, experiences, news stories, poetry prompts, etc. Even when composing a book, the individual poems will have their own unique origins.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
This is a fascinating question. I’m always nervous prior to readings, however, I do enjoy them, and view them as necessary. I’ve actually developed a slight trepidation towards readings since the advent of Covid, online readings, and the taping of online readings. Anything can happen in the online environment. I even witnessed a an online reading that was unfortunately hacked in real-time. Also, blunders and pratfalls are there forever. I personally experienced this when introducing a poet once. We were both students in the same university workshop course over 30 years ago! Our memories of the instructor and the class were quite different. Lesson learned! I’ll always consult with someone prior to introducing them in the future. Thus, I’m not a huge fan of the virtual environment. I used to love readings once the nervousness and anxiety abated. I actually created a reading series with Charlie Petch, The Plasticine Poetry Series, which blossomed from our workshop group at the time. The series ran for roughly 7 years. So, I clearly like poetry readings. It’s the ultimate labour of love running a poetry series! I’m just more cautious now, especially with virtual readings.
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?
No, unfortunately I don’t have any theoretical concerns. I’ll leave academic concerns to the academics. Writing for me has always been visceral and steeped in the senses. I suppose it’s my way of exploring and making sense of life, but I’ve never viewed it as an intellectual endeavour.
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?
I think the writer’s role is to turn a mirror on society, increase our societal awareness, and unearth life’s meaning in general. The writer’s role is to both ask and answer insightful questions. We should be able to express and explore life’s truths. We’re coupled with the philosophers in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and we’re trying to delve into the nature of the forms, the true essence of reality.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
No, I defer to peoples’ expertise in a any given area and allow them to work their magic. The important aspect is selecting an editor one respects. I’ve always had editors I respect immensely.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There are four pieces of advice from Yusef Komunyakaa, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, and Dan Brown that I adhere to.
With regards to poetry, Yusef Komunyakaa says he never adds during the revising process. He often edits from the “bottom of the poem” aka the ending. He claims we often “write past the poem” in our zeal to provide the reader with everything. We often explain too much and write past the most provocative and essential part of the poem. Consequently, the same often applies at the outset of poems. We often preamble our way into the poems, again, giving the reader more than they need. This advice has helped me tighten poems immensely!
The line I love from Flannery O’Connor is “fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” This always reminds me to write truthfully, even when dealing with confessional subject matter.
Hemingway believed in walking away from your writing and allowing the subconscious to work on it. He said, “always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” This advice has paid dividends for me and it’s definitely surreal, but my experience validates his notion of the subconscious working on your writing when you turn your focus to other matters and return to the poem or story the following day.
Dan Brown says to write the ending first. I’m certain other people have probably said this, but I heard it first from him when I viewed Dan Brown’s Masterclass workshop. It definitely works with my fiction.
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 laughed when I read this question because I don’t have a writing routine, however, I find myself writing whenever there is a stray minute. I should institute a strict schedule, but there is barely enough time in the day. Thus, I’m often writing during staff meetings or in assemblies whenever I can.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Good question. Music seems to help. Also, rereading my favourite poems of all time unblocks me. These favourite poems are immeasurably magical and always seem to release thunderheads bursting with creativity. Also, I have to consistently remind myself it’s important to just write anything, regardless of its level of mediocrity, since I have to edit anyways.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
What a wonderful question. Since I immigrated from Grenada as a child, I’d definitely say the smell of curried chicken or rice and peas.
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?
I mentioned music previously, however, there are myriad subjects from history to pop culture that influence my work. I’m presently working on a series of ekphrastic poems based on the work of a particular photographer, so visual art is a current primary influence!
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I would need multiple pages to list writers that are important to my work. Throughout my life I’ve had a “flavour of the month” pattern with poets and writers. I devour everything about them and then move on to my next literary crush. If I limit this topic to poets, there are still too many to name because I’ve adored poets and lyricists since I was 15. I have printed out roughly 30 poems that I view as near-perfection and marvel at their brilliance. I just need to read one or two of these poems to feel tingles of amazement. The poems are also from a wide range of poets, from Robert Lowell, Yusef Komunyakaa, Adelia Prado, Adonis, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Derek Walcott, to OceanVuong, Susan Elmslie and Alessandra Naccarato. See, it’s a ridiculously wide range of styles and subject matter.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
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?
I’d love to be President of the USA. That’d be a wonderful gig! Seriously though, I don’t make my living as a “writer” so I’ve never viewed it as my profession. It’s what I love doing the most, however, it doesn’t pay the bills.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Intriguing question! I’ve never pondered or contemplated what made me write. As I mentioned previously, it’s visceral and emanates from within. It’s compulsive on many levels and I can’t pinpoint a specific moment in my life that triggered its activation. Perhaps its intrinsic and as long as I was in the correct environment, it would manifest. It reminds me of something Bob Marley answered when a reporter asked him, “when did you become a musician?” He answered, and I’m paraphrasing, “when does a seed become a tree?” Actually, I think musicians are perfect examples to illustrate this point. Many of the best and most famous musicians can’t read music and never had a lesson! The list of amazing musicians who can’t read music is stunning: Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Eddie Van Halen, Noel Gallagher, etc. Many never had a music lesson in their lives. Jimi Hendrix and Elvis are self-taught. The compulsion to sit down and write poems and fiction fully cognizant one will probably never make a living at their craft illustrates how intrinsic this drive is to us poets and writers.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book is Dancing After Ten by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber. It’s a graphic memoir about the random and heartbreaking event that altered Vivian Chong’s life. I don’t want to ruin the book by revealing more, but if you haven’t read this book, definitely read it! It’s hands down one of the best books I have ever read! She’s also Canadian, so please support her.
Keeping with a Canadian theme here, the last great film was Michel Brault’s Between Salt and Sweet Water. I watched it with subtitles. Unfortunately, my grade 9 French from the 1980’s is insufficient. Actually, that’s another thing I’d like to accomplish, learn French!
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m presently working on some ekphrastic poems, a new poetry collection, a YA novel, and a bunch of short stories.