Tuesday, November 20, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Jay MillAr

Jay MillAr is a Toronto poet, editor, publisher, and virtual bookseller. He is the author of False Maps for Other Creatures (2005), Mycological Studies (2002), and The Ghosts of Jay MillAr (2000). His most recent collection is the small blue (2007). In 2006 he published Double Helix, a collaborative "novel" written with Stephen Cain. Millar is the shadowy figure behind BookThug, an independent publishing house dedicated to innovative work by well-known and emerging North American and Scandinavian writers, as well as Apollinaire's Bookshoppe, a virtual store that specializes in the books that no one wants to buy. A long-time fixture of the Toronto writing and publishing scene, Jay has participated in such projects as the UNBC/Via Rail Poetry Train, The Scream in High Park, Test Readings Series and Influency: A Poetry Salon. He is also the co-editor (with Mark Truscott) of BafterC, a small magazine of contemporary writing, and (with Jon Paul Fiorentino) Pissing Ice: An Anthology of ‘New’ Canadian Poets. Currently Jay teaches creative writing at George Brown College. Singled out in the introduction of The New Canon as a 'young firebrand' (which he reads as 'troublemaker') working against what people hold dear to the Canadian poetic tradition, Jay spent a few minutes in 2006 wondering if the editor had read his work.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I still have many many copies of this book. I am neither proud nor embarrassed by this book; it is as though it happened to someone else. But it was me who made it happen. I suppose that is the important thing. I probably wouldn’t change it much though – it’s too otherly. My first “real” book The Ghosts of Jay MillAr is a very different beast – I’d love to have the opportunity to revisit and rework that crazy overblown book.

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 have lived in Toronto since 1992. I moved here from London Ontario. I moved to London Ontario in 1971 from Edmonton Alberta where I was born in 1971. When I was a child Alberta meant a lot to me. I was always doing school projects on Alberta. I found it fascinating to be someone who at a young age was from somewhere else, and understood something about the space one had to travel in order to get there; Alberta was a place it took four days to drive to. Which we did a lot as a family, drive for days, since my parents’ families were in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, and my father ran research in the Kananaskis Valley during the summer. So every two or three years we’d make that drive. So yes, geography and the movement across it is important to me. Though now as an adult, it is South Western Ontario that I move across, that plays a great role in my writing. False Maps for Other Creatures and Mycological Studies are both books that are highly influenced by South Western Ontario, especially Essex County. There is a little northern-esque in False Maps, too, but when I think of a landscape or a history, it I South Western Ontario.

There is something about living in a large city like Toronto that makes particular demands upon a person – it either demands that you embrace your urban existence or it demands that you embrace be something beyond what you expect that existence to embrace. For me it is important to live in this city. But it is equally important that I leave this city, so that I can return somehow better informed. And when I leave, I usually head down Sowesto.

Race or gender is like geography, except it is the exact geography of your body.

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 tend to think in terms of the book. Or in terms of something larger than the word I’m working on. But who doesn’t? It’s impossible when thinking about a particular poem one is writing, not to relate that text to all the others you know, whether the texts were written by yourself or not. The universe is that huge, wouldn’t you say? What a huge book the universe is! Or could be. That being said, it is fun to toy with such perceptions: the isolated poem. Imagine if you wrote one poem that stood for your whole life. What a lonely poem it would be. But what would it say? It would probably say: “I’m so lonely! Who can hear me?” Maybe all poems by themselves speak as such. Fortunately we have lives and loves that last longer that the life span (attention span?) of a gnat.

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

Readings are a space in which I get to imagine static words in a live way. But I don’t think it affects the way I write all that much. It’s more like entertainment, something outside writing. Whether it becomes something the audience will enjoy or not is up to the audience. Some days I feel like pleasing; other days not so much. It’s up to the audience. I usually try to find some way to involve them. It’s a way of suggesting I’m actually alive. I am alive, after all, and I can only assume most of the audience is as well. Why wouldn’t we be alive together with these poems? But I’m not writing for that. I’m writing for my own amusement – and a core group of readers, which is different from an audience. I’ve always liked that the word amusement has a muse in the middle of it. So does a core group of readers. Performing poems is different – it isn’t writing – but it’s still amusement.

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 vary between the speaking lyrical I at one end and an I that is lost to a landscape at the other. It’s part of a highly developed pseudoscience I just invented for the purpose of answering your question. Whether that landscape is a physical one (such as saying “I am lost in this landscape” because you actually find yourself lost in or to your surroundings (even if that is your self) and feel the need to say so for the purpose of localization) or an abstract or metaphorical one (such as saying “I am lost in this landscape” by not saying this at all; you are actually lost in all the words you are lost in) makes little difference to me, or to my newly founded pseudoscience. But if you were to do it enough I suspect that you would eventually come to realize that no matter how many different ways you say “I am lost in this landscape” it is really these words you are lost in.

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

I am quite happy to work alone or with others.

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

If you mean do I find it harder after being ignored for as long as I have I guess not because I’m still at it. If you mean am I continually trying to top myself by producing superior work to what came before because I’ve fallen for a false notion of “progress” I guess not because I’m still at it. If you mean do you find it difficult to continue due to overlapping and compounding difficulties of financial burdens, relationships, family, issues both personally and communally based, etc etc etc, I guess not because I’m still at it.

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

At last! A real question!

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

That what one is writing in the present doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as anything you’ve already written.

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?

At the moment it is 8:56 AM. So far today I’ve risen, having been awakened by Cole, had a shower, got dressed, woke up Reid, got the kids dressed, made breakfast for the kids, coffee for me, checked my email, made Reid a lunch, walked him to school, walked home, and now I’m hanging out with Cole pretending to work on assignments but actually writing this. Eventually I’ll work on typesetting a book for a while, answer millions of emails about books people want to buy, try to read a manuscript or at least think about it a little, and then I’ll go to class. After class I’ll go teach. I haven’t written a poem in months. Come to think of it, why am I doing this? I need to.

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

I enjoy doing all sorts of things, so I tend not to worry about it. There’s always an interesting book to read, or a good piece of music to listen to, or a good film to watch. I can go for a walk or talk to Hazel or take the kids to the park. I’m not worried about writing. Easiest thing in the world, being a writer. Especially poetry. If I were writing novels it would be different. I’m too stupid to write a novel. In some languages stupid means the same thing as lazy. In others it means the same as busy.

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

It feels new. Whereas the older work feels, well, old. When regarding the older work it has become very clear to me which poems work, and which ones fail, which is why I think it would be interesting to go back and revisit my early work clearing through it, giving the decent poems some room.

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?

Generally my work comes from books about nature, or books about music, or science, or visual art. Sometimes work even comes from several different kinds of books at once. And all of that bounces off my life in one way or another. Mostly I’m just curious about where all these word came from and why.

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

Most of them are people I know. Early important discoveries were Canadian Experimentalism, the second generation of the New York School, the Toronto Small Press Group, The Coach House Press. Isn’t it interesting that it’s only literary history from the 60’s onward that plays such an important roll in current poetic practice? There’s a nice sense of amnesia pre-1960 floating around. This is a thought I’ve just had about my own work, but I wonder if it isn’t really a widespread phenomenon.

One of the biggest influences on my work has been a particular woodlot located between the seventh and eighth concessions of Tilbury Ontario in Essex County. But I guess that isn’t another writer, really, unless you’re willing to expand the definition. Are you?

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

Write a novel. Travel or even live outside Canada.

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?

Since we are generally defined by what we do to earn money, writing is really my hobby. There are many other things that I do as well. If I were just a writer I think my life would be pretty dull.

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

I’m currently working on an MA of Information Science at UofT, which has been an interesting introduction to a world that I’ve been generally avoiding for 36 years. What is that world you ask? Imagine taking a class on how to be a middle manager and realizing that you’ve never held a position of any kind or worked for a company that had more than 4 employees your whole life. It’s pretty stunning. Some people I’m sure would think, wow, that’s cool, but anyway, what difference does that make? I’m answering your question in this round about way because I’m not sure I understand it – if I were a writer I would only write, I would be paid to write and I would be able to life comfortably from my writing. But this isn’t the case. Which is why at the age of 36 I’m taking a professional degree that will lead to particular employment. But will I not be a writer once I’m employed in that profession? I doubt it. The writing has always been there; I found writing, and the writing found me, and we’ll always be there together in one way or another. Which is why I love it. But it can’t define me, lest I become an author.

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

Right now I’m reading Will Self’s Great Apes. I’m not sure why I never read Will Self before, but I’m enjoying it now. The last film I saw was Super Bad. Which is not to say that these are great books or films; I’m not terribly interested in making such verdicts. I’d rather experience them and let them work their magic.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on my marriage, on raising my kids, on an MA on Information Science at the University of Toronto. Also Apollinaire’s Bookshoppe, BookThug, and teaching “poetry” at George Brown. And I’m working on DEMTENED POEMS, a young adult novel for my son and a prose work called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dinosaurs.

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