Thursday, September 06, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Stephen Brockwell

Stephen Brockwell (photo taken in Cardiff, Wales by rob mclennan) lives, writes and works in Ottawa and other places. His third book, Fruitfly Geographic (Toronto: ECW Press, 2004) won the Archibald Lampman Award. The Real Made Up (Toronto: ECW Press) will be published in September. Brockwell will read from the book in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Montreal this fall and winter.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I can't say that The Wire in Fences changed my life. There was an earthquake the night of the launch, about 4.5 on the Richter scale. A friend proved he could descend a flight of stairs in two steps to save his life. But I don't think my book had much to do with the earthquake. I loved having a book in my hand. I enjoyed reading from it here and there. Not a life changing event, though.

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 lived in Ottawa half-heartedly between 1987 and, say, 1999. I've been living here whole-heartedly since. I think breaking ground for an extension to your house, planting trees and building a deck help to make you part of a place, which is more important than choosing to reside in a place.

Geography is a big field, eh? I don't think it's possible for a writer to escape the influence of geography: it shapes our economy and culture. Geography is the surface time and history move on. The Canadian winter seems to me a giant factor in our writing. The vast emptiness, the cities dotted along the border. The rivers. Think of Newlove's "Driving."

Race and gender are big, complex issues, eh? The Real Made Up dips its toe in those waters. If nothing else, postmodernism is the era of the question. People are asking questions about how the macroscopic economic and cultural systems maintain themselves by rules that had always been taken for granted. The delusions of fundamentalists (christian, islamist, keynesian) notwithstanding, many people now refuse to accept these rules as given. Good. I write poems that are informed by these ideas, but I don't have articulate or informed opinions.

3 - 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?

Jeepers. You'd have to ask my hypothalamus and survey a handful of neurons. Poems begin in order and end in chaos. Poems refuse to accept the idea that engendered them. A poem is "the cry of its occasion" (Stevens). The work on a book is, for me, always a background activity. Plan, abandon, re-plan. Fill a notebook. And then write something tangential as the motivation or the impulse leads. It's important for me to be excruciatingly patient when working on longer pieces. The point is not write the poetic equivalent of an idea - that seems to me the antithesis of poetry. I try to enter into an idea, explore it, read about it, read poems by others about it. Once that foundation and framing have constructed themselves, a poem can lay itself down.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I test drive nearly everything by reading it at an open mic. A poem is made out of sound - it would seem odd to write a poem without feeling it in your mouth. If it doesn't taste good, hork it into the spittoon, I say. And of course it's important to hear work by others. Poetry has been recited, heard, sung and performed since it was first uttered. I find it pleasing to hear the music of other poets' phrases, the swing of their sentences, their attack (in a musical sense) on the line.

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

That's a good question. It really depends on the book. My first and most recent books benefited enormously from work with an editor. My second and third books didn't call for as much interaction. I don't find it difficult at all. It can be an essential part of discovering the nature of the work, under optimal circumstances. Let me digress for a sec. I don't believe in certainty. The day I write a poem that I think is finished, please shoot me on the spot. The very idea of completion in poetry makes me queasy. Whose notion of completion? Is it a perfected object? What aesthetic, idiomatic, ideological, formal criteria is a reader going to use to compare your little blab of words with a perfect grid? I prefer the collaborative cultivation of poetry to the solipsistic prophesying of poetry. But, hey, depending on what you believe, even Moses wrote what he was told to write. That whole come-down-from-the-mountain thing was an exercise in legitimation.

6 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I find the process smooth if you're working with a decent publisher. I've been lucky enough to work with Michael Holmes and the crew at ECW for my last three books. They're hardworking, diligent and genuinely helpful. Book-writing is another matter; that becomes more and more difficult.

7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

A few weeks ago. I have kids, so we eat a lot of pears. My daughter likes the canned Delmonte variety but we refuse to buy the ones with 'syrup'. We squeezed up home made lemonade and limeade this summer. So much for that.

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

In conversation, in technology and the arts, you are generally impersonating someone. I find the advice that the managers of J. L. Gotrocks' business empire gave to Fred Flinstone genuinely profound. When forced to impersonate Gotrocks, Fred had a three line script to repeat to other tycoons: 1) "Who's baby is that?" 2) "What's your angle?" 3) "I'll buy that."

My father told me never to take the easy way out of anything, but I'm no longer sure that's sage advice. Anyway, I think he really meant always take the hardest possible path to everything.

I hesitate to say it but Michael Harris gave me good advice when I was starting out: editors and reviewers will accept or reject your poems for reasons that may have very little to do with the merits of your work; acceptance doesn't mean a poem has value; rejection doesn't mean a poem is worthless.

Peter van Toorn told me to wait for "the long wave," a surfing analogy, no doubt, for not scratching down every poem the wind stirs up.

Finally, I admire Keats' empathy: “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince (sic) and pick about the Gravel.”

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

I can't write non-fiction to save my life. I recently ghost-wrote an article about an information system for a power company in Ohio. There wasn't a memorable sentence in 2000 words. Which seemed to please the client since the facts were straight and the article made them look good.

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 refuse routine. A typical day begins with a barking dog, urination and a cup of coffee.

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

My writing is perpetually stalled. I regularly pour a quart of Homer's Epic 10W40 into my ears.

12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

I think that's a question for other people to answer. I will say that The Real Made Up makes me more uncomfortable than any previous book.

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?

Well, if David said what you said he said, he's very sharp, no? There's little need for "other" is there? Most of the things you describe find their way into books. Recently, I've been fascinated by physiology and neurology (which I read about in books). Mathematics has become less and less important for me as a way of approaching poetry. There are a few cryptic allusions in The Real Made Up to the speed of light. Other than poetry, fiction and criticism, I'd have to say that history and politics have caught my attention. Given our deplorable, undemocratic, secretive and obscene domestic political climate, how could they not?

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

Feel perfectly relaxed for 24 hours. I don't care by what means. Someone would have to tell me, "Mr. Brockwell, you have now experienced 24 hours of complete relaxation," because I don't think I would recognize it.

15 - 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 younot been a writer?

I'm not sure what you mean. My occupation is something like "information technology consultant." Many poets have said that writing as an occupation is a disaster for the poetry. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. WC Williams was a paediatrician. F. R. Scott was a constitutional lawyer. I could not write for a living. I'd be afraid of it. I would seriously consider running a restaurant or building green homes for a living.

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

I've written since I was twelve, I think. Blame "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" and Lampman's "November". And 70s progressive rock bands. But I do do somethings else: write java, tweak databases, plan marketing campaigns, draft technical white papers - gawd awful stuff.

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

The Illiad is a great book - I listen to that on my mp3 player every few days. I think that The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens is a great book. Erin Moure's O Cadoiro. Mark Strand's Man and Camel. Stuart Ross's I Cut My Finger may be the last really enjoyable book I've read. The last great film I watched? The independent Aussie film Little Fish probably.

18 - What are you currently working on?

Three very different things. A book length essay on poetry, geography and thinking. A book of poems about energy. A long poem about an English naval officer imprisoned in the citadel at Quebec before the Treaty of Paris. And a handful of poems that have foisted themselves onto my life.

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