Monday, November 19, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Christopher Doda

Christopher Doda lives in Toronto. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Among Ruins (2001) and Aesthetics Lesson (2007), both from the Mansfield Press. He is also an editor at Exile: The Literary Quarterly and Exile Editions. In addition he is the book review editor for an online poetry journal, Studio. His reviews have appeared in Arc and Books in Canada among others. Currently he works in the Information and Privacy Office at York University.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I imagine that this is a common response but it provided some legitimacy to all the scribbling I’d been doing for years, to why I didn’t take a more practical post-secondary education. When I graduated high school I had won the awards for both English Literature and Business Administration. There was some questioning around the wisdom of my decision to continue with my studies of English Lit. at the expense of the other.

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 moved to Toronto from the small hamlet of Belfountain when I was 21 to attend university—quite a sharp adjustment. I’ve lived here ever since, apart from a year at McGill, so it’s nearly 16 years now. Toronto suits my temperament: its reputation for coldness and formality is somewhat deserved and I think that feeds into my style of ‘de-personalized’ poetry. I adored living in Montreal and I’m even developing a certain cagey fondness for Ottawa, but I doubt I’d feel at home in either of them.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of shortpieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a"book" from the very beginning?

Poems start in fragments and lines. Like most scribblers, I carry a notebook around all the time and write little bits and pieces and impressions as they come. I’ll start on a poem when some of the fragments have something in common and work from there. And I certainly don’t think ‘book’ from the very beginning; I’m not nearly prolific enough to afford that luxury.

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

Outside of the strictest concrete poetry, poetry should be read aloud, out of homage to its origins as an oral medium and its association with verse. As for the creative process, they’re largely separate though I’ve found that I will reconsider lines that seem fine on the page if I stumble over them in public.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kindsof questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

As I mentioned earlier, I favour a de-personalized poetry and an avoidance of direct expression of emotion in verse that likely stems from an early interest of the ‘objective correlative’ from TS Eliot and the dramatic monologue from the Victorians. Even when I speak from an “I” perspective, it is to avoid the personal, anecdotal, prosaic narrative in poems. History, mythology and violence have always been at the forefront of my thinking, along with the rise and decay of cultures. For us in the West, the rot of culture from within, the lack of respect and interest in the culture and values that spawned us and are now largely taken for granted is a source of deep disquietude. In poems, I sometimes adopt a persona (like Lazarus or Nero or Helen) in hopes of doing my part in reinvigorating those stories for the contemporary world. But the role of art has taken a backseat to work and entertainment, which I regard as a dangerous set of circumstances. When a society treats art like a convenience rather than a necessity, it is doomed.

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

Essential. I generally don’t work with an editor until I’ve got a manuscript ready and by then each poem has likely been through 10-20 drafts, so I like to think I’m fairly easy on my editors. Mansfield publisher Denis de Klerck and Richard Teleky, one-time editor at Oxford Press, have helped me with both my books and the work is better for it. As has my partner Priscila Uppal, who has a wealth of brilliant ideas. I work as an editor myself, which probably helps too.

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

With the second one, I knew what to expect. When my first book was being prepared it was like each stage took the work farther from me. I write my first drafts by hand, so they are wholly mine. After 4-5 drafts, I might type out a copy on my computer and work from that. Already one level of distance has been built into the process, and then another once a collection has been typeset, another at proofs. Once it comes back with a cover and makes its way into the shops, it’s like it isn’t mine at all anymore; it belongs to the world, however much the world is interested.

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

I have no idea. Much to the chagrin of my spouse, fruit rarely enters my diet. Hello, scurvy!

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

When opportunity knocks, get your lazy ass off the couch and answer the door.

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?

Thanks to my 9-5 desk jockey lifestyle, I do most of my writing on weekends. Because I live with another writer and we used to occupy very small apartments, I cultivated an ability to write outside of the house, a necessity when we had only one desk. I usually write at the Atlas One Café or the Regal Heights Bistro, both on St. Clair Ave near where I live. I’m fussier about space when I write, rather than the specific time of day, though I can’t write into the early hours of the morning like I once did.

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

There are a few possibilities. I find it wise to work on more than one thing at a time, so if I stall on one, I can just turn to another. I’ll also pick up a new poet, do some reading and hopefully be spurred enough to return to my own work. After that, there’s wine.

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

My new book is (hopefully) more mature and less on the pyrotechnic side than my first.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, scienceor visual art?

Art galleries are some of my favourite places in the world. Some of the theoretical concerns around art and mimesis in the 21st century are relevant to poetry, but really I approach art more as a viewer than anything. That said, I’m just as exhilarated by the work of an artistic genius like Max Ernst or Clyfford Still or Francis Bacon as I am by great poetry.

As for music, I listen to a great deal from rock and metal to industrial to classical (Niccolo Paganini and Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine have more in common than might be obvious). Many years ago, as a teenager, I played the drums, which I think had an impact on the way that I write poetry in that I’ve always paid attention to the rhythm of language as much as content. Both are essential in the creation of meaning.

When it comes to science, let’s just say I didn’t win that award in high school. Some of the theoretical problems around physics are fascinating but the math completely eludes me.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

As for poets, the list would be extensive (I sometimes feel like I’m jogging behind a small of army of very talented people). TS Eliot and WH Auden immediately spring to mind. As do WB Yeats, John Donne, Czeslaw Milosz, HD (Hilda Doolittle), Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Tomas Transtromer, George Faludy, Miroslav Holub, Wallace Stevens, among others. I’ve recently discovered Nissim Ezekiel, whom I’m enjoying a great deal. As for novels, I should mention two that radically altered the way I view the world: The Trial by Franz Kafka and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition.

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

I should improve my terrible French both for myself and so I could some translation work.

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 younot been a writer?

I do not make a living as a writer. I am trained as an archivist and currently work as a records manager. I was fortunate to find a profession that suits someone with a vaguely misanthropic streak; sometimes I prefer the records of people to people.

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

A certain sense of loneliness. I grew up kind of isolated so I had to cultivate an inner life fairly quickly to stay occupied. I was always creative in some way, though as a boy I kept sketchbooks and thought I would do that. The switch to words came when I was about 15-16 years old.

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

I face lengthy commute to and from work every day, so I read a lot of novels (poetry is not conducive to the TTC) and I’ve had a pretty good run lately. Highlights after a day of pencil-pushing have included: Blindness by Jose Saramago, The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq, The Tenant by Roland Topor, Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki and Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by David Madsen. At the moment I’m 120 pages into Witold Gombrowicz’ enigmatic, terrifying and hilarious Ferdydurke and loving it.

As for films, I’d like to mention The Lives of Others, which won the foreign language Oscar last year over some good films, including Pan’s Labyrinth. That was very good, but for once the academy made the right choice. David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises was fantastic and makes a neat companion piece to A History of Violence.

19 - What are you currently working on?

The final stages of Aesthetics Lesson in the summer were fairly intensive so I didn’t write much immediately after. I’ve only started to think about poems recently. I concentrated on reviews in the meantime.

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