Interview by Alison Petrovich
Did you always like poetry or was there a moment or poem that your passion for poetry stems from?
I think my interest in poetry developed over time. I always liked singing lyrics which I learned to do at a very young age as most of us do. I came from a pretty musical family and we did a lot of singing. I started writing songs around the age of nine when I was learning how to play the guitar. I was learning how to play songs that were popular in the 60s and 70s because I have two older sisters, so I played a lot of folk songs which I learned afterwards were informed by a lot of modern and contemporary poets. So if I was learning Bob Dylan songs, he was reading T.S. Eliot. I suppose my first exposure would have been through poetic song writers. Actually thinking about poetry on the page, as separate from oral delivery, as separate from music or singing, probably happened when I started studying poetry in high school. I published my first poems in the early grades of high school, which was when I remember poetry first becoming something that I would seek out on my own. We were reading a lot of Canadian poetry at the time as it had become integrated into the regular high school curriculum, so we were reading poets such as Earle Birney. The guidance counsellor at my high school was related to the Canadian poet A.M. Klein, so I got interested in Klein and started reading some Montreal poets and some of the other big Canadian poetry names of the period. I then became more interested in studying poetry seriously and began reading veraciously, not just Canadian poetry, but poetry from all over the world, including a lot of poetry in translation.
Living in Montreal and teaching at Concordia University, does the city environment or your career as a professor influence your writing?
That’s a great question. When I completed grad school in English I was in California and at the time I was secretly also doing poetry workshops. I always continued writing creatively, but my academic graduate supervisors told me I needed to make the choice between being an academic or a creative writer. So I said okay, but I continued secretly doing the poetry workshops with some of the creative writing professors at the school, but without telling my academic professors. Then I had some different opportunities when I came back to Canada to work, and the choices were between some institutions that were much more academic research-oriented in Ontario and Concordia was one of my other options. There are many reasons why I felt Concordia would be a good fit for me. One is that I was born in Montreal so I had family and friends here, which was a big attraction. Another reason was that I knew Concordia has a very strong creative writing program. It could be a place where I could explore pursuing both my research, my literary, historical, and critical interests, along side my creative interests. From the very beginning I imagined Concordia as a place that would be welcoming of and supportive of research and creation simultaneously, and I found that to be the case from the first year that I came here. I have colleagues who attend readings all the time. I really feel like this is a unique program in the country. Most of the other creative writing programs are MFA programs, which are a bit separate from the academic side of things. This is a program that allows me to exercise my creative and critical intelligence simultaneously. It’s been a great place to be a critic and a poet. It’s probably one of the best places in Canada to do that.
Is there a place you go or something you do when you are searching for inspiration for your writing?
I think the answer to this question has changed over the years. I used to imagine something that could facilitate my writing much more in terms of space than I do now. I think it’s partly because I have far less choice over where I am at any given moment so I don’t really have the choice to go to a particular café or hotel room or city. I used to have a lot more freedom to move around. I think now, I create environments in which I can be creative based on surrounding myself with things, whether they are texts or objects, that I think will be interesting to insight some sort of creative constraints on me. More recently I’ve been much more interested in collaborative creative processes, which probably has changed my relationship with the text. I sometimes use a text from another work, whether it is creative or not, as a kind of collaboration in my own creative process.
How do you know when you’ve written a good or bad poem? Is there a feeling you get or do you test it in some way?
There’s definitely a feeling I get when I feel like it’s really jamming. It doesn’t mean when I read it the next day that I’m going to have that feeling again. Immersing one’s self in the writing process is probably the greatest gratification of writing and in a way, that’s the most important thing for me. I am interested in the finished product and being able to share something so that it would have an affect on the reader. Re-reading and re-writing is another way. I do a lot of poetry readings out loud as well, and I find that’s an excellent way to continue the editing process of my work. I usually read it out loud to my self anyway, and reading it to an audience is another way to help me see it in a way that might make me want to make some changes or not.
Those are all of my questions, did you have anything else you would like to add?
I have enjoyed reading in the Eastern Townships and at Bishop’s University in the past. I was first invited to read there at the initiation of my former colleague Robert Allen who had close ties with people at Bishop’s in the English department and at Champlain College where he used to teach. One of my poetry collections, The Debaucher, is partially about Rob and spending time in the Townships and at Bishop’s.