David Martin works as a literacy instructor in Calgary and as an organizer for the Single Onion Poetry Series. His first collection, Tar Swan (NeWest Press, 2018), was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell Book Prize. David’s work has been awarded the CBC Poetry Prize, and has been shortlisted for prizes from FreeFall, Vallum, PRISM international, and the Alberta Magazine Awards. As well, he was named a “Writer to Watch” in 2023 by CBC Books. His latest collection, Kink Bands, was published by NeWest Press in September of 2023.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t think my first book, Tar Swan, changed my life drastically, but it was rewarding to see in print a project that had taken about ten years to complete. It was also very gratifying when readers and reviewers would engage with what I had written and spent so much time working on.
In my most recent work, Kink Bands, I moved away from the book-length narrative style of my first collection, but I still kept things feeling unified with the general theme of geology coursing through the poems. I believe that I was able to explore more experimental aspects of my poetry, while also moving towards a personal, lyrical approach in some of the pieces.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was taking an undergraduate survey course in poetry, and was immersed in studying the famous names of the art, when I happened to meet with a group that called themselves the Drunken Poets Society. They would get together every Monday at the Ship & Anchor Pub and discuss poetry, as well as share their own work. This was quite a revelation for me, to find writers for whom poetry was a living art, and the combination of studying poetry at the university and revelling in the new poetry that I was hearing really got me hooked on the form.
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 projects usually develop slowly, with a general sense of what I’m seeking, but this can shift and be refined as I continue to work on them. Often my first drafts, of both individual poems and manuscripts, look very different than the final versions. I’m always aiming to fine tune a piece and see how it can be improved or taken in a new direction.
For some projects, like Tar Swan, I will do a lot of research, both technical and archival, while others have a more direct link to my personal experiences.
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?
For some manuscripts, I have a guiding theme from the outset, and for others it’s more a process of writing to find out what I’m really writing about. In a few cases, an editor who is helping me with my work will discern a theme or narrative that I was not aware of, and then this can be something I uncover and explore more deliberately. It’s interesting to me when an outside perspective can recognize patterns and ideas in the work that I’m not noticing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy sharing my work at readings, but it’s usually when pieces are quite far along in their development.
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 often have a general question or general theme that I’m chasing in my work. For instance, with my first book I was interested in creating an understanding of the history and mythology of the Alberta oil sands that one wouldn’t find in other books about the subject. With the most recent collection, Kink Bands, I was wondering about how to use geology as a means of looking at the world, how to experiment with the theme in ways that perhaps other poets haven’t explored, and how to enact geological processes within the space of a poem.
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 each writer makes their own decision about where their interests lie and where they will focus their attention. Often there is a binary between personal and public-facing poetry, but there are many examples of introspective work that resonates with a group of readers and thus takes on a public aspect. I wouldn’t want to prescribe a strict role for the poet in society (as witness, philosopher, avant-garde experimenter, etc), but instead think that each poet is pulled to the themes that move them the most.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find it incredibly helpful to work with an editor, as long as it is someone who is engaged with the poems and whose advice I trust. Often I get caught up in my own ideas, and it’s necessary for me to find out what someone else will make of what I’ve written. Are they able to come along with me on the poetic journey I’ve laid out (no matter how strange it may be), or have I lost them somewhere along the way? I’ve had positive experiences with editors who are able to discern a cohesive theme from a set of what I felt were miscellaneous poems, and I’ve had great experiences with an editor finding the one word or line that needs to be changed to make everything click into place.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice was given to me by a co-worker, almost in passing, and it pertains to raising kids. She told me that when your kids are young they will need help with almost everything, but you, as the parent, will be able to solve pretty much all of their problems. As your children grow up, however, they will need less and less help, but the situations that they do require assistance from you will be harder for you to solve (social interactions, friendships, etc). I always liked that advice, and especially as it was delivered offhand while at work.
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 strict writing routine, but I do try to carve out a few dedicated slots of time during the week when I can focus on writing.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Usually I find reading poetry will get me out of a rut of some kind. I try to read quite widely, in general, and I find that ideas can pop up from reading scientific articles, poems, essays, news articles, pretty much anything.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The scent of baking coming from the my mother’s kitchen is a strong reminder of home for me.
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?
My work can be influenced by historical events, environmental phenomena, scientific research, listening to music, and many other things.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m a big fan of the poet Michael Donaghy. He isn’t all that well known in North America, as most of his publishing was done in the U.K., but when I came across his work it was a revelation to me about what could be done in the small space of a single poem. He makes intricately designed works seem like the most natural thing that you happen to be overhearing.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’m working on a libretto for an opera, and during the pandemic I tried my hand at writing a novel. So I’ve been trying to work outside of my normal comfort zone. Maybe one day I’ll try writing short fiction, something I’ve never really done before.
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’m a musician in several different bands, but a part of me wonders what it would have been like to try to be a professional musician.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I do other things, such as work as a literacy instructor, play music, and volunteer for a poetry reading series, but I’m always drawn back to writing because I’m obsessed with the possibilities of language, and I’m constantly seeking new avenues to explore in my poetry.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I don’t watch many movies, unless it’s something my kids want to see.
The last great book I read was The Liars of Nature and the Nature of Liars by Lixing Sun. I’m starting a new project about cheats, thieves, and con-artists, in both the human and non-human worlds, and this book was very interesting and relevant for me.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m working on the final edits for a collection coming out next spring. It’s a work of experimental translations, framed by a speculative fiction narrative, and I’m a little apprehensive about what people will think about it.