Monday, October 1, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Adam Dickinson

Adam Dickinson was born in Bracebridge, Ontario. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in a number of literary journals and in anthologies such as Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets, and Post Prairie. He has poems forthcoming in The Echoing Years: An Anthology of Poetry from Canada and Ireland, and in The Shape of Content, an anthology of creative writing in mathematics and science. His first book of poetry, Cartography and Walking, was published by Brick Books in 2002 and was short listed for an Alberta Book Award. The collection that became this book won the 1999 Alfred G. Bailey Prize from the Writer's Federation of New Brunswick for the best unpublished poetry manuscript. His second book of poetry Kingdom, Phylum was published by Brick Books in 2006 and was a finalist for the 2007 Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Adam is currently professor of poetics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he teaches poetry, creative writing, and literary theory. He also co-edits the literary journal PRECIPICe.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I was fortunate with my first book. I got some excellent reviews and I got nominated for an award, so I felt encouraged. I also got to go on a reading tour with Tim Lilburn, which was an extraordinary glimpse into the world ofan established and celebrated poet. Having completed my first book, however, I found myself asking more questions about my poetics, about where I wanted to go next, about what aspects of my work I wanted to challenge. In this respect, my first book changed my life by provoking me to consider new frontiers.

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

I have only lived in St. Catharines for a little over a year. I would say that geography is very important to my work, but not in a literal way. I am extremely interested in the necessary relationship between imaginative and physical experiences of place, the surreal that inhabits the real. I'm also interested in the landscape of contexts that comprise composite relationships with place. To this end, Edmonton, Ottawa, Fredericton, Muskoka, and all of the other places I've lived in my life are part of my experience of the geography of St. Catharines. I have been interested in maps for my entire life (my first book featured this obsession more prominently). Poetry and cartography have the same interesting relationship with error, with trying to fit three dimensions into two. My life in St. Catharines includes all of the other dimensions I've passed through. Not unlike the question of place, or the order of place, race and gender are of fundamental interest to me inasmuch as they are bound up with questions of taxonomical thinking. How we order our sense of home (community) is very much connected to orders of the body and other bodies. I explore some of these questions in Kingdom, Phylum.

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've have worked in a number of different ways. I have composed short pieces that have eventually coalesced into a larger project and I have worked from a conceptual point of departure. I would say I work with a larger "book" in mind these days, but I also like to wander in my writing and I keep notes and poems on subjects that have (as far as I can tell at the moment) no bearing on the current book project.

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

I love public readings. I read whenever I can. I definitely feel they are an opportunity for creativity, for continuously reinterpreting my own work. In this way they are very much involved in the creative process. They can be poetically generative (even more so when I get to read with other people and hear new and interesting work).

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 work is about adjacency, about standing in relation to questions of order and disorder, identity and decomposition (as opposed to assuming a discrete position in concluding such questions). I am fascinated by the prospects of using poetry as an alternative form of engagement with questions traditionally associated with the domain of scientific analysis. The reliance in scientific discourse on images and metaphors (what is the atom if not a metaphor? What is evolution if not a narrative?) is a wonderful enactment of the plurality of resources required to think through fundamental questions of materiality and temporality, and, ultimately, ethics, identity, and community. I am also increasingly interested in aleatory poetics and treated texts as a way of inviting the environment into the authorship of the poem. So much ecological poetry is written by humans. I am very intrigued by inviting the weather or other organisms into the text through the interventions of chance-based procedures. I am also an academic, so my research interests in ethics and postmodernism also figure into the poetics underlying some of my compositions.

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

Both. Brick Books assigns editors to all of their authors. My experiences with my editors so far have been very good; I've been pushed to rethink and defend certain poems and procedures. This kind of provocation is always good for making one come to terms with what one is doing.
7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I would say that each book of mine has had such radically different dilemmas associated with it that it is impossible to compare. I don't worry about the same things anymore, which means that I can't tell if it is harder or easier -- it is simply very different.

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

Erin bought some prickly pears from Mexico a few weeks ago. She remembered eating them when she was living down there; it is such an event when they ripen and become ready for consumption. Apparently they don't last very long so Mexicans make a big deal of their arrival. We ate the pears and they were truly disgusting, but Erin kept a brave face insisting on her delicious memories.

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

"Don't try to be clever; we're all clever here" (Advice from an Oxford don to an incoming student)

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 have been more sporadic these days because I have been settling into my new job as a university professor. I like to write when I am grading, believe it or not. I think that the act of attempting to inhabit a student's mind to help him or her sort out an argument is such an exercise in pattern recognition that it sets my mind firing in all kinds of interesting directions. I do my more intentionally sustained writing in the evenings.

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

I read. I read poets, philosophers, graffiti, and French language ingredients on packages. I find a good walk helps as well. But mostly reading; how can you not get inspired by reading?

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

Kingdom, Phylum was conceived more specifically as a book-length project.It feels very different from my first book; however, it always intrigues me when I run into writers who say these sorts of things because often upon reading their latest works the departure seems subtle. Perhaps I'm not the best judge of my own departures. I certainly feel like Kingdom, Phylum is a more ambitiously focused work.

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 think I have alluded to this in Question 5.

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

There is no outside to my work. Everything I read and think about informs my poetry in some way or another.

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

Become a better poker player. A better reader of tells.

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?
I would definitely have been a meteorologist. Specifically, one specializing in the processes and dynamics of lake effect snow.

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

The ineffable desire, the imperative, to stand in relation to things differently, to say something and to explore something in the terms of something else. I find this endlessly fascinating. For me, such collisions of contexts are very much a function of making sense of being alive. I figured this out once in an airport in Indianapolis with a psychoanalyst that I met.

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

How could I pick just one? The Book of Love (it's hard to lift the damned thing).

19 - What are you currently working on?

A book of poems that integrates genetics and poetry. Soon I will need a kite and a thunderstorm.

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