Thursday, December 28, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Joshua Chris Bouchard

Joshua Chris Bouchard is the author of Burn Diary (Buckrider Books) and Let This Be the End of Me (Bad Books Press), the latter of which was shortlisted for the 2019 bpNichol Chapbook Award. He wrote or co-wrote five chapbooks, and his poetry appears in Event, CV2, Carousel, Poetry Is Dead, PRISM international, Arc, and more.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first chapbook, Portraits, opened a new world of publishing, collaborating, and sharing the work as opposed to just writing it for my own edification. It was a feeling of: This what poets do, and I feel connected to that tradition. I wanted to be a writer, to publish, to do live performances.

The biggest difference between my work now and my work then is more focus. The work then was a big release of emotion, experiences, and ideas. The work now is more deliberate with themes and overall purpose.

It feels different. After the Toronto launch of my first full-length collection, Burn Diary, I felt a very deep melancholy. I couldn’t figure out why. Eventually I realized it’s because the work changed, and I have changed. And change can be frightening sometimes. Or feel like some big loss. But it’s also necessary and good and signifies progress. It’s best to always move forward.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My introduction was through music. Lyrics and the feeling of music. We all know that feeling when we hear our favourite song. It’s undeniable. I would listen to metal and hardcore and think: These people are saying something that is true and meaningful to them, and I want to do that too. I also listened to hymns at mass and was really moved by them. This fervent kind of expression and devotion.

I journaled and wrote lyrics to imaginary songs. I would show them to anyone who gave a damn. Everyone thought, I think, that something was wrong with me. My grandmother found one of my journals and was very concerned, which made sense. I was writing about trauma and abuse and horrible things. I think that’s why I liked poetry more than fiction or non-fiction. I didn’t want to construct narratives. I wanted to let it all go – everything I was feeling without rules – and poetry allowed that.

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?

I think I write new projects at a decent clip. I’ll think about the idea of something for a long time and piece it together in my mind. When I sit down to write it’s almost already formed, so the actual process of putting it on the page doesn’t take very long.

First drafts can take a lot of different forms. Some of my earlier chapbooks were not changed much from the first draft besides minor edits. But Burn Diary was shaped and reshaped from the original version quite a bit over years.

When I was just starting out, there was this impulse to throw caution to the wind: just write, leave it all on the page, see what happens. Keep everything as is, let it be raw, let it be faulty. But now there is a more deliberate process. I’m older, maybe wiser, life is different. The writing is different too.

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?

A poem starts with a thought that I can’t let go. I obsess over it. It could be a word, phrase, or image. Usually, it’s a feeling that I don’t know how to make sense. I work it out on the page and wrangle it until some kind of path comes from it. Usually, they start as short pieces that I curate into a larger thematic work. For example, Burn Diary was written over years with poems from different times of my life. It was then laid out into a large book, rearranged, heavily edited, paired down to its core.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love doing readings and have done a fair share. I don’t think about performing when I’m writing and I don’t think about writing when I’m performing, but performing has the same importance as writing. The poem on the page has a life and the poem read aloud has a life, but they’re both born from the same source.

The poem on the page is read by someone alone in their house and they have a specific relationship to it in their mind. They can take their time, reread it, leave notations in the margins. The experience of a poem at a performance is very different. It’s read aloud as it’s intended to be experienced by the author. They hear their voice and see their body. I like to do as many public readings as possible, and I think I cut my teeth in the literary scene at open mics and other live gigs. I wouldn’t be the same poet I am today if it weren’t for 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?

My goal used to be pure emotional expression, even to a fault, even if it meant chaos. I resented anything academic or stuffy or pinned down by arbitrary rules. I hated anything that I perceived as artistically oppressive or authoritarian. Poetry was an act of rebellion.

But now, things are much less clear. My views on myself and the world vary. If anything, I want to elicit a visceral reaction from readers. I want readers to gasp, swoon, cry, laugh, be horrified, glad, complacent, petrified. Again, the feeling when you hear your favourite song or read your favourite poem. It’s there, deep down in the belly. What is that? How does it happen? I think it’s the connection between you, the world, and the artist. Or maybe that’s all bullshit. I don’t know! Mu!

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 writers have a very important part in larger culture, even if they sometimes inflate that sense of importance in certain contexts. Many people have said that writers are the political and cultural barometers of any given society, and I think that is very true. A very large part of the writer’s goal – maybe their only goal – is to account for what is going on in the world in a very concrete way and hold up that unapologetic mirror and say: This is what we are, and this is what are we doing.

There is also the writer who explores the more metaphysical and introspective aspects of life: This is what I’m feeling as a human being. I think there is a place for both and, anyways, those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Ultimately, I think writers have a moral and artistic obligation to call it as they see it. Be a human and express your humanity.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It’s nearly always essential. I feel I’m the best judge of my work but that can get you only so far. When you live inside your head all the time you get lost in the corridors of your thinking. An editor is there to guide you and be honest with you. They need to tell you that the idea/word/poem/phrase isn’t good or not doing what you want it to do.

Sometimes an editor can hurt you because your work is so precious that criticism can feel like an axe to the head, but they also give you power to make something the best it can be. I have written many poems that I thought were very good, only to have a good editor (or general reader) tell me that the poem doesn’t make any sense to them. There needs to be a stable conveyer of meaning from author to reader otherwise there is no point in sharing the work outside of yourself, and editors will help you build that.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

This may not be the best advice – I have heard many inspiring things from people about creativity – but it’s something my high-school history teacher told me. He was subbing for the Writer’s Craft course, and we were writing poems. He looked over my shoulder and asked: What’s that line break for? Why is it there? I didn’t know the answer.

He told me that everything you do in a poem needs to have purpose, even line breaks. That stuck with me. To this day I remember that when writing poems: Does this line break or word have purpose? What is it I’m really trying to do? I also find music-recording engineer Steve Albini inspiring. Specifically, his lectures on the creative process and how the capitalist industry impacts artists.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to photography)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’m a visual thinker, so it’s easy to go from poetry to photography. Photography works out a different part of the artistic brain muscle. You see it as a whole rather than lines left to right, it’s a physical object, and it exists outside my mind. I didn’t create it, it’s already there, its meaning subjective based on the observer. I also sing in a band and have dabbled with visual art. Again, a different muscle at work, but it’s all part of the same nervous system. It’s about expression. Photography can express something that poetry can’t; music that poetry can’t; poetry what neither photograph nor music can’t. I’ll go back and forth without much trouble.

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’m fastidious. I write between 5am – 9am on Saturday and Sundays. I work a full-time 9-5 gig, so weekends are my best opportunities to sit and put the words down. I rarely write anything during the week, except maybe a few notes or lines I think are promising. I think some people are obsessed with writing; they are incapable of doing it. They will write all day if they could, any chance they get, or they will sit down and write a large work from start to finish in nearly one sitting. I sometimes wish that were me, but it’s not. I love to write but life itself always takes precedent.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Music is always my first creative palette cleanser. Music doesn’t demand the same things from a listener as poetry does from a reader. I can lie there and let it wash over me. Again, music hits a different nerve and stimulates a different part of your emotions. The second thing is just living, which sounds very vague and boring, but it helps me a lot. Go to the park. Go grocery shopping. Buy an overpriced eclair. Go to the mall, the worst mall you can find. Malls are incredibly inspiring. They are so oppressive and offensive. Go to the food court and just watch people eat. Invariably I will get that feeling again and ideas start to come.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I love this question. It’s the smell of fire in autumn. Campfires or from home fireplaces. It’s that smell during twilight when it’s kind of cold, there’s a good wind, and the scent of burning wood is everywhere as you walk down the street. It elicits an image of safety, peace, warmth. Or gasoline.

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?

Music and movies are huge influences. Music for the feeling and film for the visual. This reminds me of going to a movie theatre in the early afternoon on a summer day. You’re in the theatre for a few hours, it’s dark, whisper quiet, and you may even be totally alone. You become engrossed in the film, the characters, the story. The film ends and you walk out, and the sun suddenly pulverizes your senses. You feel like you’re in a dream or like you’ve somehow transformed into a new person. You’re a bit wobbly and stupefied. You’re not the same. I love that feeling. I want people to feel like that after they’re finished reading my poems.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Shunryū Suzuki is an important writer and teacher for me. He wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which, when I was younger, was like a bible to me. To this day I go back to it occasionally and read passages. Suzuki was a Japanese Zen Master, and the book teaches the practise of Japanese Zen and its basic philosophical tenets. It can be incredibly comforting when I feel utterly defeated by life. My friend Alex once said about therapists: Sometimes you just need someone to tell you you’re not a piece of shit. That’s what Suzuki does for me. He reminds me that I a human being who is flawed but…not a piece of shit.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I have always fantasized about building a cabin in the woods and living there for…maybe forever. Have you seen the Dick Proenneke documentaries? Proenneke went to Alaska in the 1960s and built a cabin by hand and lived there alone for 30 years. He documented the wildlife there and wrote in his journals and that was about it. Not at all like Thoreau or something like that – he was the real deal. I’d also like to write a novel. Ideally a good one.

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?

Psychologist, neuroscientist, or theoretical physicist. You know, the usual. Or a drummer.

I might have been a miner if I never started writing. I would have followed the path of my father and grandfather back home. Some kind of skilled trade. Right now, I’m an Editorial Manager at a digital PR company and have been doing that for 8 years. I suppose I would just be doing that, but not sure if I would have ever got there if it weren’t for writing. Maybe some other corporate gig. Living life and paying bills like anyone else.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Solitude and lack of money. It was something I could do completely alone, any time, any place, and virtually for free. If I had more money, I might have gone straight to buying an instrument and taking music lessons. It was also kind of easy. I didn’t really have to try at it. It came very naturally to write down all my thoughts and feelings. I felt I was good at it and later was good at shaping them and later was good and reading them aloud. Was I delusional? Maybe, but here we are!

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m nearly finished reading A Case Against Reality by Donald Hoffman. It’s a non-fiction book by a cognitive/neuroscientist that theorizes on the nature of objective reality and human consciousness, under a cognitive and evolutionary-psychological context. It basically argues that objective reality as we perceive it is not actually there, and is more like a shadow of an underlying reality we can’t understand, which is required to survive as animals. I am not sure I agree (or understand) it all but it’s fascinating.

Some months back I finally watched Aftersun, a UK film by Charlotte Wells. A devasting movie about a daughter and father who is not mentally well. It’s sort of an homage to the director’s late father. I also just rewatched Come and See by Elem Klimov. A true classic about the absolute horrors and brutality of war. Painful to watch at parts but certainly one my favourites. The actor who played the kid, Aleksei Kravchenko, was just unreal.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a new poetry collection, but I just started. I’m not sure what it’s going to be yet, but I think it’ll be calmer and quieter than my last collection. So far, it seems funnier. I’m also working on a non-fiction collaborative project. We’re just in the process of outlining it all. I think it will be good to stretch into a different genre. I also sing in a band called LINENS and we’re getting ready to record our first EP.

Overall, I have this sense of terror and dread about the future, but that can also be a good feeling. It propels me forward. Onwards.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: