Tuesday, September 25, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Colin Morton

Colin Morton was born in Toronto after WWII, grew up in Calgary during the oil boom, attended U. of Calgary when W.O. Mitchell was writer-in-residence, and U. of Alberta in Edmonton when Tom Wayman was writer-in-residence. His M.A. thesis (U. of A., 1979) was a novel. Morton began publishing poems and stories in small new literary magazines in the 1970s, many of his early publications being visual or concrete poems that are still anthologized and are being republished in The Cabbage of Paradise (Seraphim Editions, 2007). His first book of poems, In Transit (Thistledown Press, 1981), was published the week Morton moved to Ottawa, where he was employed in the federal government for eleven years. Outside the 9 to 5, Morton published more books of poetry (This Won't Last Forever, Longspoon Press, 1985; The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems, Quarry Press, 1987; How to Be Born Again, Quarry, 1991) as well as publishing small literary editions under the Ouroboros imprint, performing cross-media poetry and music with the First Draft group and in the animated film Primiti Too Taa, and writing more novels for his drawer. Since leaving the public service in 1993, Morton has published one of those novels (Oceans Apart, Quarry, 1995) and more poetry (Coastlines of the Archipelago, Buschekbooks, 2000; Dance, Misery, Seraphim, 2003; The Cabbage of Paradise, Seraphim, 2007; The Last Cluster, Pecan Grove Press, forthcoming), and during the 1990s served as writer-in-residence at Concordia College and Connecticut College in the U.S. His new project blends poetry and history. Morton has reviewed poetry for several publications but does not have a book of criticism in the work. Although of average height, Colin Morton sees eye to eye with his wife, Mary Lee Bragg, and looks up to his son, Dr. Jeff Morton.

1 - How did your first book change your life?
My first book was published when I was 33. That meant that I could now look people in the eye when I said I was a writer, and it meant that I could set aside the poems I had been going over for years and move on to to new ways of writing.
2 - How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I have lived in Ottawa for over 25 years. Geography does impact on my writing, insofar as it separates me from familiar places and familiar faces. I often return to the prairie landscape of my childhood, for writing material, both for its elemental qualities as landscape and because of my youthful associations. Debates on race and gender remind me that my own (male and pale) experience isn't "the norm" but one variety of a diverse reality. That diversity expresses itself within groups, though, as well as between groups. For example, I have lived with women all my life, and feel I have some understanding, but there are more different ways of being a woman than there are generic differences between them and men, as groups.
3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction 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?
It all depends. A poem or story might begin with a single line or sentence swimming around in my head soaking up connotations and rhymes. As I grow older, I think or plan my work in larger pieces, or with thematic concerns and designs. For example, my current project focuses on a historical situation in the 1870s; my book Dance, Misery evolved under a thematic imperative - to write about "public passions."
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
For me, giving a public reading is a late part of the creative process. I like to keep my work under guard for a few weeks or months or years, and not to be too porous to well-meaning suggestions from others. But at a certain point, public response at a reading can tell me important things, even if it is only, "don't read this in public again."
5 - 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?
The current questions are, by and large, the same questions as ever: where do we come from? who are we? where are we going? Although I don't think matters of literary theory or technique can answer those questions, they can help us ask them in ways we might not have done before. One theory behind my recent writing is expressed by the title of Robert Fulford's talks, "The Triumph of Narrative." I think people want and need stories, because stories help us sort out what is important to us in ways that rules, laws and commandments can't do. I am trying to write poetry that is a form of thinking. Yes, it is "head and heart running together"; I just want thinking to be as important as feeling, in my poetry.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
No. (Outside what?)
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
I guess it's a little easier. When I was younger, I often had big plans that never came to much. Now I am more patient, more sure of myself, more willing to stick with something that turns out to be difficult. It always does.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
This morning for breakfast. To make sure you get a ripe one, twist off the stem. If it comes out easily, it's ready to eat.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Today, it's a tie between:"Take it easy" (Bob Marley) and "Fail better" (Sam Beckett).
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have written both from the beginning, and it is often difficult to know which form a new idea will take. There's the appeal of marrying form and content. While I believe that form follows content, I know that the form I choose to work in also steers or shapes what content I can get into a poem or story - even if both are on the same subject.
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 am a slow starter, so I tend to give myself all day to find the sweet spot when the writing gets done. Then I will keep at it, all day every day, until I'm exhausted or, more likely, reality gets in the way. When I am not writing is when the days begin to get "typical."
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I can't get to the ocean, and if I can't put it out of my mind that I've got to write something (says who?), I am most likely to find new impetus in reading: poetry, history, philosophy, fiction.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
If my most recent book is The Cabbage of Paradise: The Merzbook and other poems, then my answer is simple. This republication of two 1987 books brings together narrative, lyric and performance pieces that I was doing together with the cross-media group First Draft, but that were separated when the poems about Kurt Schwitters and my own concrete poems were published in different volumes. My forthcoming book The Local Cluster is my most thoroughly "environmental" book: it focuses on the local scene - neighborhoods, including the "earth household" - and it includes two haibun series that fuse prose and verse, however uneasily, in a single form.
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?
Books do come from books, as Northrop Frye said long ago. I also sometimes let music lead my writing (as, more often, poets follow the verbal music in their heads).
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I've had literary infatuations, from Keats and Shakespeare to Atwood and Newlove to Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, but today I think none of these are as important as the understanding that literature is a universe of knowledge. A mountain range doesn't include only the bits that stick up above the clouds.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
The one essential thing on my agenda that I haven't gotten to yet is death. I probably won't like it, but it's peculiarly satisfying to get to the point when I have no more urgent ambitions.
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 don't like to contemplate the latter question; I don't think I could have been satisfied doing the things I probably would have done. Given my druthers, I'd probably still be in the arts, preferably the cooperative arts - theatre, film, radio - where you have something to show for your work at the end of the day.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The feeling mentioned above, that I want to have something to show for my efforts. As a writer, I control the means of production, the working conditions, the design and quality standards; everything except the level of remuneration.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just read Nadine McInnis's Two Hemispheres, which verges on greatness with its marriage of wildness and control, intensity and understanding. Just before that, I read Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, important, though not as great as his Freedom Evolves, or even as strong a defence of agnosticism as Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: a history. Among films, Sarah Polley's Away from Her is nearly great; the one most people seem to have missed, though, is Max.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm writing a poem sequence on one of Canada's earliest refugee crises and peace-keeping missions - to the newly claimed North-West territory in the 1870s. In large part, it is a character study of the leading figures, Sitting Bull, chief of some 5,000 Sioux and Cheyennes who fled the USA to escape persecution, and Mounted Police officer James Walsh, from Prescott near Ottawa. I'm surprised how many people I mention it to do not know the story, or how important it is to the shape of present-day Canada. In writing about it, of course I'm interested not only in "where we come from" but also "where we are going."

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