Poet and critic Stephen Collis is the author of three books of poetry, Mine (New Star 2001) and Anarchive (New Star 2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and the forthcoming The Commons (Talonbooks 2008). He has also published numerous chapbooks, including The Birth of Blue (1997), Anima/lung (1998) and Blackberries (2005). His essays on contemporary poetry and poetics have appeared in many Canadian and American journals, he has edited Companions & Horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry (WCL 2005), and he is the author of two book-length studies, Phyllis Webb and the Common Good (Talonbooks 2007) and Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions 2006). A member of the Kootenay School of Writing collective, he teaches American literature, poetry, and creative writing at Simon Fraser University.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
I self-published several chapbooks before my first perfect-bound book with a “real” press (i.e., someone other than me wanted to see it in print). Before that first “real” book I didn’t tend to start thinking about my next project until the one I was working on was done. Since Mine, however, I’ve begun thinking/planning long-term—to think about what the next two, three, or even four books might be, and how they would fit into an evolving “project.” So getting a book published gave me some sort of confidence or permission—that I might have a “future” in this, that if I can do one book, I can do more, and this broader canvas, imagining the interplay between discrete works, was really exciting. It quickly became clear to me that what I wanted to do in writing couldn’t be contained by one book. But getting that one book out was the first step in realizing this.
2 - How long have you lived in Vancouver, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I’ve lived in Vancouver for 10 years, but I grew up close by, on Vancouver Island. The west coast—the ocean, forest, small islands—is always there somewhere. I wrote a long poem called “Blackberries” that, despite taking most of its material from the writings of Henry Thoreau, is incredibly site-specific and wouldn’t have been written had I not constantly been surrounded by west coast blackberry brambles. But my work is largely historically based, so it takes on the geographies of the histories it investigates. Vancouver’s cultural geography matters a great deal to me—that the city has been a crossroads for avant-garde poetries—TISH, the 1963 poetry conference, KSW and the 1985 new poetics colloquium. To write in a ground seeded by poets from Phyllis Webb to Jeff Derksen. I’m very aware of that sense of geography.
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?
I always work on books or series of books. The book is the main unit I think in terms of—my unit of composition. At the same time I do write short, occasional lyrics, and I publish a few of these in journals, but whenever I’ve tried to group them as a possible book it’s been entirely unsatisfactory. I just don’t work that way. I have to have the concept for the book to work towards, to think through. Writing in general usually begins with the making of collages—word assemblages that come out of the research I’m doing for the book in question. These often don’t make it into the book, but at some point the playing around with my research stops, and something else takes over, as I find my way into the language I want to use—or be used by.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Readings are important to me in that I value getting a sense of how my work is going over—what people are and aren’t responding to. And I want to do a good job—to give people an experience of what the work is, where it’s tending.
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?
My theoretical concerns revolve around a series of political questions: what is the self’s relationship to others? How is language a part of this articulation or interface of the social? What resources remain—in language—from the history of liberation movements and class struggles? In what sense are we able to act—socially—in language? We are living in fraught, dangerous times. Much that has been won, historically, is being rolled back by aggressive powers. So I’m interested in the tradition of protest poetry, and I want the old Situationist adage—that poetry is the revolutionary act par excellence—to be true, but I fear it is not, that that’s just as naïve as it sounds, so I test it again and again. I’m trying on a poetry of revolution, seeing what it might do, how far it can be pushed, both into the past and, from there, into as yet unrealized futures. Fundamentally I’m interested in the other and the future, and I think these things are at the heart of language, and revealed in poetry.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
An editor’s contribution can be a real gift—to have someone read your work thoughtfully and deeply—to read it with so much care that they can tell you something about it you haven’t seen yourself. But it’s rare. I’ve been lucky enough to have that once or twice—but it is rare.
7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
I can’t remember my last pear, but I had an Okanagan peach not too long ago. A peach seems more poetic.
8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Go west young man. I think someone told my mother that. Or my grandmother.
9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Sometimes the different genres I write in get in the way of each other. Usually it’s poetry trying to take over whatever else I might be working on. Criticism can be a pain in the ass to write—but there is an appeal: writing prose uses different mental muscles. My poetry doesn’t use the sentence much—the word, the phrase, the line is the basis—but not the sentence. So I can get quite excited about, and enamoured with, sentences when I switch to prose. But soon enough I abandon punctuation and grammar again.
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 read, then I write. The earlier I start in the day the better. Somewhere in there I’ll walk and think.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read or I walk. Sometimes—if I’m writing poetry—just picking up any book, more or less at random, and reading a few lines is enough.
12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
I’ll call the forthcoming The Commons my “most recent,” and Anarchive my “previous.” They are both part of an on-going sequence of books (see #5 above) I call “The Barricades Project.” So in some ways I see them as parts of the same long poem—it’s just a very discontinuous long poem. Segments entitled “Dear Common” recur in both books. But the books have a different feel or tone. Anarchive was more aggressive, vocal, declamatory. The apostrophe and the public address were at its core. The Commons is a little quieter, meditative, pastoral. I suppose it’s probably the denser, more difficult book. But they are movements in the same structure. The whole thing is questioning where the relationship between part and whole resides—socially, linguistically—in terms of the poem, the serial, the book, the oeuvre.
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?
I agree with McFadden. Though sometimes it’s painting or music that I’m responding to. Actually, painting often plays a large role in my work.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Phyllis Webb and Susan Howe—obviously, I’ve written books on them. Especially Phyllis’s Naked Poems and her incomplete “Kropotkin Poems.” Robert Duncan has been crucial and formative—at the level of poetics, the long poem, the serial. Amongst my contemporaries Melissa Wolsak and Roger Farr have, for different reasons, been very important—as friends, and for their work.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There’s always so much—I guess right now I’d say make a film. I probably won’t ever do that—but the idea is cool.
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?
See the previous question! But I don’t think there was much choice—I’ve always had to write. Maybe I’d like to have been a painter, or a film maker. Or a better activist and revolutionary!
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
This is getting harder. The muse, she is coy. If you see her say hello.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It was both infuriating and brilliant. For film, maybe the BBC documentary The Century of the Self.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m spending a year mostly reading, recharging, and re-educating myself. Really, it’s gearing up for the next part of “The Barricades Project,” which will be called The Red Album. There’s a book of prose cooking too, but I won’t say anything about that yet.
12 or 20 questions archive