Monday, January 7, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Margaret Christakos

photo credit: Zephyr Christakos-Gee

Margaret Christakos is a Toronto-based writer who has published six collections of poetry and a novel. Her most recent poetry books were published by Coach House Books: Sooner (2005), nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and Excessive Love Prostheses (2002), winner of the ReLit Award. Three other Christakos titles with excellent small presses are wipe.under.a love (Mansfield, 2000), The Moment Coming (ECW, 1998) and Other Words for Grace (Mercury, 1994). Her novel Charisma was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award in 2001. Three recent poetry chapbooks further her experimentalism with gender: My Girlish Feast, from Belladonna, 2006, Adult Video, from Nomados, 2006, and Retreat Diary, from Book Thug, 2005. She has won the Bliss Carman Award which comes with a very nice turquoise ring. Christakos also works as a creative writing educator with a variety of organizations and institutions; in recent years she has taught at Glendon College, University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and Writers in Electronic Residence (WIER); as well she offered consultation to students throughout her Canada Council residency at the University of Windsor English Department in 2004-05 and taught creative writing from 1992 to 1997 at the (then-named) Ontario College of Art. As a supplement to her writing, she curates and facilitates poetry projects in the Toronto community and, as a paid coordinator in 2003-04, developed a readings program with PEN Canada in support of persecuted international writers living in exile in Canada. For a decade she worked as an editor with cultural magazines and publishers. She holds a BFA in Fine Arts from York University (Visual Arts) and an MA from OISE (History and Philosophy of Education). She and her partner have three children. Despite such domestic foolishness, Margaret has sustained a multigenre writing practice, given readings and seminars across Canada, and generally insisted upon the value of poetry to contemporary culture since her first book Not Egypt was published in 1989, a manuscript originally brought to Coach House by her primary mentor bpNichol.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It was a disappointing experience that required me to toughen up. There was very little response. More formative was the reality that bpNichol who’d brought my book to Coach House died the year before it was published. Such a loss. He hinged diverse practitioners together, built an intergenerational community. Most of the other senior writers in Toronto were ego-driven, insecure maybe, exclusionary. I keep that in mind all the time: no matter who’s getting the “goods,” a vibrant artistic community cannot exist without engagement with emerging artists, formally inventive artists and senior artists.

2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I’ve been in Toronto for two decades, plus I spent 1980-84 at York University.

I grew up with hills, rock, lakes and short cuts. I like living in the west end of Toronto currently near the Humber because the terrain is not a grid. But I do love dense urban cores, and the freedom they afford to me as a pedestrian.

Race and racialization, and concepts, namings and practices of gender, are aspects of human identity and social structure I think about a lot.

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?

I ingurgitate and project. I love to write and so have multiple projects gurgitating. I generally have an intense vision of structure and conceptual and formal scope for each project, and a completion fixation. It’s funny, I don’t think there’s much use in asking me questions about my work as if you haven’t read any of it. What’s that about? What kind of a conversation can we have. Is the idea that all the writers you interview are blank slates and/or that readers are? I shouldn’t have to start from square one and biographize myself into existence and relevance. Unless I’m trying to pick you up and I’m not. I don’t like to think of readers that way either, seduce them into finding me interesting. I wish the work would get read and then be the platform of discussion. That’s what this country needs, people intrigued with discussing work.

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

They are part of it. I get paid a little for most readings and this becomes part of the patchwork economy on which I can say “I make a living as a writer.”

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?

That’s three vast questions (vastions!) wrapped up in a couple dozen words. I don’t find it that useful to yak on about this stuff extraneous to an actual conversation. I have a lot of theoretical concerns behind, in front of and inside my writing. I am thoughtful about why write, what write, how write, all of it.

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

Deeply depends on the editor. I really appreciate it when the editor is engaged enough to write a blurb for my book, instead of asking me to write promo text. I hate that.

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

Each book is its own making.

I routinely have depressed episodes where I can’t think of one good reason to publish another book ever. Usually some person says something to me, unbeknownst to them, that encourages me to validate my own artistic seriousness and continue. Actually, I’ve realized I’m becoming less and less eligible to do any other kind of work. Maybe retail. I’m pretty good at math.

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

A few days ago.

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

Calm the fuck down, Margaret.

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

It’s been easy but my earlier fiction was very poetic, coyly so. I had a beef about plot, like plot was too normative. I’m still very attracted to narrative that is built of micro-events, but I am interested in how subjects experience these events, how people move through events and events move through people. I observe more closely the physical world I occupy. I’m starting to be a better fiction writer now, since I started teaching seriously. I’ve had to learn a lot of stuff I never knew or studied in the past.

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 write continually. I have children who I make breakfast for, so that’s how my day begins.

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

In Northern Ontario there’s an expression: if you don’t like the weather wait five minutes. That’s me and writing. If I don’t have an idea, I wait five minutes. I have never not had things that make me curious and impelled. Although I can get overly hung up on repeating themes and gestures. I’m getting better with that, less knotted.

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

It is continuous and discontinuous from my earlier work. I’ve got two books on the go. Both are better writing than earlier work, is one difference. It’s all much less controlled by romanticism. It’s better grounded in observation, and my innovations are more leaps anchored in the evolution of my peculiar body of work and less regurgitative. I’m better with complexity and much better with simplicity.

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?

Being in the company of children and understanding the way they think and feel is a major influence and passion in my life. I’m also influenced by many other art discourses.

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


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

So much. Too much. Everything.

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 think I would have probably been in the publishing industry as an editor or publisher. I do lament that I didn’t keep with magazine work—I think magazines are very important. I had twins in 1997 and I became quite focused on domestic labour. Endless and interesting.

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

I love visual communication and art, and/but I seem to need language in a way, like I have a thirst for it that is quite strident. I wonder why that is. Sometimes I think I was in silence too much of the time when very young, I was one of those humans who really wanted things explained in words.

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

Divisadero. A major achievement. I wonder what M.O. will do next. This book will keep teaching me for many years.

I haven’t seem too many films that have startled and shaped my thinking this year. I used to be a maniac for film.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm trying to figure out how to maintain a livelihood as a writer. I'm paying off taxes and trying not to faint while doing it. I'm engaging in teaching and event coordination. I'm raising my kids and the community that extends from them. I’m working on a new novel, and a new book of poetry. I'm reading and trying to learn. And designing the fourth Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon, which runs April to June at U of T School of Continuing Studies.

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