Sunday, December 2, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Dennis Cooley

dennis cooley grew up in saskatchewan, has lived and taught in winnipeg since 1973. part of the literary ferment in winnipeg that led to the formation of the manitoba writers' guild, turnstone press, arts manitoba (now border crossings). has been central to the writing, editing, teaching, and theorizing of prairie literature. next book: correction line from Thistledown in fall of '08.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I suddenly felt legitimate. The world is full of pretenders, the writing world no less than any other, and I had learned to be sceptical about people who called themselves writers, but who never seemed to write. And so I felt awkward myself in that stretch when I was writing but hadn't published a title.

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

Been in Winnipeg since 1973, though the geography of the city has not become central to my writing. I tend to be fairly responsive to geography generally, I think, even though it doesn't always enter the writing very much-not in a sustained or overt way at least. I write of yards a bit-at home, at the cottage-more in my early work than elsewhere, but I'm not big on descriptions of landscape as a rule. (I realize your question doesn't necessarily suppose that version of response). Race doesn't enter my writing much, perhaps because I am wary of entering a territory in which I would be out of my depth and apt to get things terribly wrong, so I don't presume (dare?) to address race very much. Gender's a different matter. It's there a lot, in almost everything I write, I think. It's maybe most overt in the endless love poems and muse poems that I write, but it figures all over the place.

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 have no set methods but I often write toward a book, a gathering of bits around some site. Seeing Red (using Dracula material), Goldfinger (reworking of fairy tales), fielding and Irene (elegies for my father and my mother), country music and the bentleys (set off by Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House), this only home (space poems), and Bloody Jack (playing with an actual historical figure, Jack Krafchenko)-all were conceived as books and written as books, in some cases over more than a decade, so I do a lot of that kind of work, yes.

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

I love them, love sounding poems, finding ways to voice them. And that affects how I write many of them, too. It may be that as a result I write more poems for performance than otherwise I might have. It certainly does mean that in performance I tend to choose poems that I think will "work" for an audience. That means I do fewer pieces that are dense or (for my self-protection) that are highly emotional.

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?

I am informed by theory all the time. Not so deliberately, perhaps, as some unsympathetic readers might believe, but always, yes. I'm perennially asking myself what a poem might be. What a reader might be. What shifts in the poem might engage the reader. I'm probably more accommodating of a range of formal possibilities than seems credible or wise to some of the more messianic poets or doctrinaire readers might abide, but I am intrigued by what might be done. I do grow weary rather quickly with some of the more forthrightly orthodox poetry that has been recently championed, and of some of the more language-based writing that has in other camps been promoted. There is something to be said for party politics in poetry, I realize, but they don't interest me. I've never chosen up sides (though I do have my own symathies, admirations, and antipathies) and I think that attempts to enforce orthoxies tend to get in the way. Anything approaching fundamentalism of any kind tends to put me off, and I find myself shrinking from summons to keep the faith or to hunt down infidels.

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

Actually, I've not had a lot of engagement with editors. In my experience if I've gotten any editorial response it has tended to be brief and minimal. I wouldn't at all mind something more substantial. In fact I've often wished for a reading that would be more thorough, informed, and tuned-in than what so far I've generally found. A lot of editors, I think, are fairly conservative, or they are inclined to respect what you have done and fear doing anything that might be inappropriate, or unwelcome. In those cases, for me at least, their advice wouldn't be particularly helpful. But to have someone who knows what I am trying to do, and why, an editor who knows the precedents and influences, the poetics that are behind my writing, and who reads texts meticulously-well, yes, I'd love to have that kind of editor.

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

Generally easier, I think, if by easier we are referring to the writing itself. The production of a book is another matter. Its acceptance or refusal at any stage is never untroubling.

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

Apparently just the other day. Forgive me, it was so cool and so delicious.

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

What you have to know about poets is: they all are vain, and they all are ungrateful.

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

The edges have always been permeable for me, especially as I write poetry in the loose or emphatic rhythms of speech. When I write criticism I also like to construct a more folksy voice, and a slightly playful speaker, one who here and there will break into little songs and riffs, small runs of joke and rhyme. I like the energies of those crossings, and I like moves to break down categories and hierachies. The notion that the critic is by definition a lesser figure, and one who clings parasitically to another figure who is honorifically named as poet or creator, is one I do not support. A good reader is creative and will, more often than some might want to admit, from time to time, and then some, exceed in skill and creativity the very subject (poet) about whom s/he is writing.

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?

Few routines that I am aware of. I write whenever I can, though for practical reasons that means that much of it is done early in the morning or later at night, at least during the academic year when I am absorbed in that work. But I dib and dab into manuscripts all the time. Writing poetry enables frequent brief visits more than working on a novel, I suspect, would. It's so easy to pull out a few pages of poetry and fiddle with them.

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

Crazily, I'm seldom at an impasse, the words just keep coming. I've got hundreds and hundreds of pages underway at various levels of realization, I throw notes constantly onto paper, draft poems all the time. What lies behind that inertia is what I suppose you are asking in a way. And who can say? Inspiration is a good part of it, I'd say, whatever that might mean or wherever that might take us. A love of play-that certainly. The thing is: for me writing is not traumatic or painful, it's virtually always pleasurable, and I suppose that's what keeps me doing it. That and a pathetic, deluded desire to be read and admired.

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

I don't know, really. The other day Robert Kroetsch was saying to me: you're writing has become more dense and more complicated (he had just been re-reading one of my early books, Fielding). I said I'm not sure, and that most of the characteristics in my writing were there, I think, almost from the outset. You can't, of course, write everything at the same time, nor determine the time of its appearance, so inevitably there will be a chronology of composition and of publication. Trouble is that patterning can mask what is going on. In some ways I am tempted by the argument that after a writer has reached a certain level of competence, and confidence, what follows does not necessarily represent an improvement or a gain, so much as a variation on whatever potential the person is working out of, but hasn't yet written. On the other hand, I would have no problems whatsoever with a careful reading which would identify shifts in the writing.

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?

I am utterly indiscriminate and I will (and do) grab whatever catches my eye. Part of that impulse leads to the research that enters virtually all of the books. I am working on the bentley poems and I read oral histories, letters from immigrants, memoirs. I am writing space poems and I dig out books about astronomers and they begin to enter the text. My mother is dying of cancer, my gardening mother, and there is that cold white garden as she is dying at Christmas, and I think of Pluto, and the next thing I'm reading a bunch of material on classical names and narratives. And so on. I latch onto whatever crosses my eyes, or catches my ear, whatever becomes available because of what I am working on.

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

Many. Many writers have affected my own work. I've offered various lists of names from time to time-the latest being in by word of mouth-and those who are interested could run them down with a little snooping. The list of those "outside" my work would be enormous, and always growing, as it would be, I'd expect, for all writers.

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

Find: a few months of idleness in Portugal, a greater readership.

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?

Were it not for a series of events that fell into place, I probably would have been a highschool teacher in Saskatchewan, teaching literature, and actively involved in the local sports scene.

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

Multiple reasons, unfathomable reasons. A series of accidents, serrendipities, sheer chance. That and a love of words. A series of things converged. Intensely teaching and reading poetry, editing poetry for Turnstone, meeting a couple of dynamic friends who wanted to be a part of making a new literature on the prairies, some intense personal experiences, the sudden availability of magazines and presses, the wild enthusiasm of students in Canadian literature classes-all this in the 1970s-made writing thinkable for me.

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

One of the last, one of my very favourite books of all time: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Film I can hardly say. I hardly track films and I'm always at a loss with this kind of question.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Journals, several journals from trips to Europe. Essays, assorted essays, most of which I am going to gather in the next few months toward a book. Several of them are on Kroetsch. Five or six collections of poetry-one of them a medical narrative, another set of metalingual pieces, another on the muse, more poems in love in a dry land. Lots of things.

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