Asa Boxer’s debut book, The Mechanical Bird (2007), won the Canadian Authors Association Prize for Poetry, and his cycle of poems entitled “The Workshop” won first prize in the 2004 CBC Literary Awards. His poems and essays have since been anthologised in various collections and have appeared in magazines internationally. Boxer is also a founder of the Montreal International Poetry Prize. He presently edits The Secular Heretic, an online magazine for the arts and sciences. His latest book is The Narrow Cabinet: A Zombie Chronicle (Guernica, 2022).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book got me out there into the writer’s world. I won a couple of prizes and wound up at events and readings meeting a lot of people. That early success deceived me into believing poetry was a viable plan of some sort, that I could make a living at teaching and writing.
I took more time with my most recent book. The first one, The Mechanical Bird, was a strong book. I’m proud of it still. My second, Skullduggery, was rushed. There’s an expected schedule in CanLit, maybe in the Anglosphere, that you should have another book out every four years or so. That might be okay for short chapbooks, but I think a collection should take time—see what holds up over the years. This present collection, The Narrow Cabinet: A Zombie Chronicle, has poems going back as far as 2009 and as recent as 2020. I had strong guidance from Michael Harris and Eric Ormsby with the first book. Everything came together well, including the cover. Skullduggery wasn’t a bad book, but some of the poems were butchered in the editing process and there was no vision for the overall project—I mean other than my preoccupations, those themes to which I return: lies, technologies, love, bizarre paradigms, deep pain offset by humour.
The Narrow Cabinet feels different from the previous books in the way it holds together as an historical and psychological evolution from murderous exile out of Old Europe, through myths of origin like the “Iron Crow” that taught us “mental prying,” the impulse to adventure and risk with characters like geologist Chuck Fipke who speaks of “a readiness to trade / my shirt, trade my pants for dear life / and stand buck naked in the back-bush of New Guinea” (in contrast to our present safetyism) and our struggles with love and our inner lives, down into a sinkhole of corruption, disillusion and despair where we are “captured. . .among its shadows,” and finally into the zombie present of mass production of “soul resistant material” and globalist same-same. The book ends on a sort of positive note with a poem called “Four Quartets for Zombies,” an allusion to T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” and a poem that’s a kind of euphoric fusion and DJ inspired interleaving of snippets from other poets from Gerard Manly Hopkins to Leonard Cohen, with an eye on reconciling science with the mystical core of religion.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My father Avi Boxer was a poet in the 1950s-70s, so I come by it honestly—so goes the cliche. He was a student of Irving Layton’s, friends with A. M. Klein, Louis Dudek, Leonard Cohen, Milton Acorn, Seymour Mayne and others of that period. Poetry was a big deal in my household growing up because those days when my dad was active were truly inspiring, both in the US and Canada. Until the late 1960s, early 1970s it wasn’t unusual for poetry readings to net a crowd of 400 people.
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?
The more I write, the closer initial forms have come to resemble final forms, but I always work a great deal on the language and form. I can’t say “projects” work out too well. For poetry to work, for lateral thinking to truly have its way, it’s a bad idea to define a project ahead of the writing. There are many kinds of poems of course, but the ones that really endure, that retain their relevance are not project-driven. Every age and period requires its own approach and sometimes it’s good to have something urgent to say. But then there are those poems that evade capture or are captured and recaptured and find new meanings like pure lumps of the world, poems that have no obvious tenor, like Blake’s “The Sick Rose” or Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” or Ted Hughes’s “Pike” or anything by Hopkins. No doubt we are most drawn to urgent messages and well stated conclusions, but the best stuff manages to reach beyond itself or beyond the poet’s preconceptions. Surprising insights emerge from that creative impulse of repurposing and revitalizing old hat and dead metaphor. That said, working with themes and writing a sequence often yields a few good poems, like studies in painting that result in breakthroughs.
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?
I think the answer above covers this question. All I’d add is that once a collection of generally short pieces seems to come together, I will often feel inspired to round off the book with some poems that draw the whole together.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes. I enjoy public readings. I write with an audience in mind. By and large the work I do is performative and aims at holding the attention of my listeners. I’m not sure what the point of writing would be if it were not aware of its need to appeal and tickle the ears of an audience. I mean it has to strike an audience as relatable and hopefully do some entertaining.
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 think poetry like all art is a shamanistic practice that works to connect us to the world, to reconcile our outer and inner existence (as Ted Hughes put it in his essay “Myth and Education”). The great challenge of our times is that we are disconnected and can’t tell the difference between our imaginings, our impositions upon the material world, and the material world itself. Likewise we have no idea when we’re dealing with our emotional life, and when we’re being detached and objective or what we feel is scientific. In other words we’re in the grips of a dangerously irrational mentality that couches its claims in rational terms. The smart phone is a fine example. We mediate experience via a flattened, Euclidean screen, losing all dimensionality, and believe we’ve captured more and shared more by posting an image of a meal than by telling a friend about it in person. By posting we reach more people, but we sacrifice the human connection we would have by telling a single person and connecting on an individual and authentic level. We thereby lose touch with experience, with true sharing, with true joy. . . and life turns into this pseudo-experience emptied of quality. We quantify qualities like happiness as though a % makes our experience more real. But in fact the more we operate this way, the further we stray from reality, the more abstract life becomes, the less we make contact with ourselves, the less touch we have with our actual experiences, and this spills over into how we respond to others, to their ideas, their loves and hates. We hear talk a lot these days about “social constructs” but there seems little understanding of what that might actually be, never mind how we ought to deal with it. At the moment the idea is that one group should be able to impose its construct on another. That’s not working out too well. I mean it’s the same old barbarism as colonialism and wars of religion but with a new excuse.
There’s this bizarre materialism at work that leads folks to believe they can change themselves outwardly like a hair colour, and that this will in fact represent true character or represent true self-realization and fulfilment. A humorous observation is the weather forecast: what’s 15% chance of rain compared to 28%? I mean who actually reads that and thinks it means anything other than “maybe.” We live in this world full of illusions that we’re being practical and scientific because we put this funny looking symbol (%) next to a number, when all we’re doing is fooling ourselves. That’s the humorous side; but there’s a profound issue here, and it’s how we rely on essentially unreliable technologies to tell us what to do. How many times have you decided against making plans because of the weather forecast, only to find that on the day-of the weather is beautiful? When it comes to the weather for a given day, we can learn to assess for ourselves and likely be at least as accurate as the forecast. But most of us surrender our instincts because these technologies and our present day science demand such a surrender. And we lose trust in ourselves, or worse never develop trust in ourselves, awaiting the commands of authorities. This sort of behaviour always signals the collapse of an historical period.
So art needs to intervene like a naked avadhuta and make everyone stop while it does the dance of reconciliation with its stories, its re-presentations, its cannibalising and reimaginings. But most of all for our moment, it needs to directly challenge the oppressive strategies at work in our society; the bourgeois safetyism, Lululemon outrage, Twitter twaddle, shallow, white-shoe identity/. If art isn’t actively offending shallow materialism and cheap politics, if instead it’s a voice for that, its just cosmetics and propaganda and has no claim to being art. Poetry offers a path to the Tree of Life instead of to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; the latter leads to death, to finger-pointing recrimination and expulsion from the concerns of the heart-life, while the former reminds us of who we are, where our hearts lie, how alike we all truly are in our struggles, how we might relate to the inert and the animate worlds, how reconcile the subject to the object in an I/Thou relationship. . . and in its best moments, a poem of value elicits a meaningful chill, a kicking up of the feet along with a deep breath, restoring us, returning us to our true selves and to a state of harmony.
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 definitely covered this above…
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Editors are essential. But beware. Not all editors are suited to all poets. There has to be a familiarity with the poet’s work at some level or it’ll wind up being superficial (which isn’t necessarily all that bad) or at worst, an imposition. At best an editor is a sympathetic reader who will take the time to grasp the poet’s vision (if there is one) and base edits on that understanding. I feel there’s something deeper going on in this question, a kind of advice to poets that I’m not quite sure how to give. Early careers require more input from the right sort of mentors, while those who feel they’ve got their craft sorted out, require less meddling.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Advice to a poet? Write what you want to read. Make sure the first line is memorable.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m philosophically inclined, so writing critically is essential to my process. I used to write poetry criticism, but feel I outgrew that once I’d decided what I liked and why and what I disliked and why. Now I’m more focused on writing about those philosophical issues that strike me as most urgent: things like brainwashing, cultural and social pressures, and metaphysical concerns.
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?
Wake up at 5-5:30. Have a coffee and start a project or reread something and do some editing. Get in a vigorous workout around 7:30 if I haven’t been sucked into something entirely. And then see whether it’s more writing or working at something that pays the bills or running errands or whatever is next on the priority list.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Physical labour and crafts are therapeutic. There’s nothing better than doing landscape work, home renos, DIY projects. I love bookbinding, so I’ll do that as well to clear my head. Nature walks. Camping. Fishing. Travel. I have to put my mind elsewhere entirely and let all the mental work go. Lateral thinking and poetry come from being, working and relating in the material world, so it’s essential to get away from abstractions and anchor oneself in the demands of life.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The chlorophyl odour of freshly cut salad or juiced greens or similar mixed with clay and dust (a dash of dogwood maybe) along a country road. And there’s the odour of freshly sawed wood in a workshop or lumber yard or house being built or renovated.
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?
Relationships and the interplay with how I enjoy or detest my experiences. Good food is great alone, but how much more enjoyable when shared with others? I have some musical friends and when music gets played and you have that good food thing going—hard to imagine life getting much better. I’m equally stimulated by scientific and philosophical ideas, but usually this too is best enjoyed when I can share ideas with receptive folk. Nature is recurrent in poetry and represents a grounding for me. Goethe had this idea of “active seeing” which I associate with Hopkins’s “inscape”—the idea of connecting with objects and living things to the point of almost becoming them, a process of communing, you might call it. I’ll take inspiration from anywhere I can get it.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m a big fan of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis. Also love Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Leonard Cohen, David Solway, Eric Ormsby and Michael Harris. I’m just spewing here. I read a lot, and I like junky detective stuff too. Raymond Chandler is fun. I read works on the Kabbalah and the occult. Gary Lachman has written some great books on all kinds of topics and persons deemed “occult.” I’m a fan of William James. Enjoyed neuro-imaging specialist Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary a critique of western civilization from the perspective of right-brain / left-brain forms of thought and behaviour. David Berlinski’s critiques of New Atheism and Darwinism are fascinating. Henri Bergson’s works continue to captivate me. There’s a great book by Bergson-scholar and AI developer Stephen Robbins called Time and Memory which puts together a pretty impressive picture of how conscious perception works. I’ve recently returned to Jeffery Donaldson’s Missing Link, which I think is a wonderfully poetic take on the evolution of consciousness. I’m pretty voracious. Richard Holmes—the Coleridge biographer—has written some great historical books like The Age of Wonder, which explores the connection between the emergence of present day science and the Romantic movement. Presently I’m reading William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 travel novel Blue Highways, full of great stories from American small towns as they were when he visited after losing his job during that great depression period. The list goes on: I suppose I ought to mention Northrop Frye as an influence, and The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney as a favourite poetry anthology. Love the way that book is organised alphabetically according to title rather than author, giving more prominence to the poem than the writer. I’d say all these books and writers are “important” insofar as they do in fact impact my sensibility in some way or other and likely find their ways into my writing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Sometimes I think skydiving or hang-gliding. There are some travels I have in mind. Hard to say. Time travel would be neat.
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 would have been an astrophysicist or archaeologist, maybe an engineer. These are my areas of interest aside from history and literature.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I suppose it was my dad’s early death when I was 13. It was also bad science teachers at college. I would have pursued that avenue had the teachers not been truly vacuous, empty-headed technician types who saw it as their duty to turn out more sleepwalkers like themselves. There was literally zero substance to their curriculum. I needed more.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Great is a tall order. Was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Never saw the film. I’m just not into murder. But this was a damn good book. Picked it up at a book fair for three bucks and it was a first edition. So I started flipping through and couldn’t put it down. The complete prose works of Edgar Allan Poe was stylistically great. Ted Hughes’s translation of The Oresteia by Aeschylus was great. William James’s collection of essays The Will to Believe was truly great. Only got to those in the past few years. Now I’m listing too many and I’ve already covered a bunch above.
Last great film? Again a tall order. Pig with Nick Cage (weirdly) was damn good, maybe great. The Joker might have been great. I certainly left the theatre feeling that way.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve got another collection of poems. Maybe I’ll call it Don’t Be that Way. In many ways it’s a continuation of my themes but I’m always looking to achieve new effects, to touch readers in ways I haven’t managed before, find new avenues into the creative zone, to express that vital impulse. I’m also working on a prose book—a cultural critique—maybe I’ll call it Science Misbehaving, or Science as Bad Religion. I’m not too happy with the clericalism affecting the sciences today. Every field other than engineering is soft with dry rot if you pick at the facade. I can’t believe we live in a world that believes in dark matter, dark energy, wavicles and settled science. I think we’re in a dark age of institutionalised science posing as The Science. There’s a quotation from William James I keep disseminating at every opportunity:
“I have heard more than one teacher say that all the fundamental conceptions of truth have been found by science, and that the future has only the details of the picture to fill in. But the slightest reflection on the real conditions will suffice to show how barbaric such notions are. They show such a lack of scientific imagination, that it is hard to see how one who is actively advancing any part of science can make a mistake so crude.”
I think everyone needs to hear that. The idea that the science is settled is so harmful to us culturally, I can’t begin here to explain exactly how, but it leads to nihilism (or worse—just thoughtlessness), suicide, or death wish upon others (who are destroying the planet for instance), a deep apathy among some, and for those who nonetheless display empathy, an inability to manage human suffering, let alone understand it. The idea is that we can just medicate, get a new body, or obtain assisted suicide and check out. Oh, and we can’t talk about it because the science is settled.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;