Saturday, February 23, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Peter Culley

[photo: Roy Arden]

Peter Culley was born in 1958. His books are Twenty-one Oolichan 198o, Fruit Dots Tsunami 1986, Natural History Cleave Editions 1987, The Climax Forest Leech Books 1995, Hammertown New Star 2003 & from New Star the forthcoming The Age of Briggs & Stratton: Hammertown Book Two. His writings on Vancouver art have appeared in numerous magazines & catalogues.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I thought the hard part was now over, and that a shelf of books would then pretty much write & publish themselves.

2 - How long have you lived on Vancouver Island, 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 Nanaimo--except for some spells in the 8o's--since 1972. Geography--in the broadest possible sense--has always been a central concern of my work. As a teenager I knew about Paterson & The Maximus Poems so early on in my writing I knew that writing a town was an appropriate activity for a poet. And there were numerous local examples, from Daphne Marlatt's [see her 12 or 20 here] Steveston to Brian Fawcett's Cottonwood Canyon, from George Stanley's Terrace to Gerry Gilbert's Vancouver. Robert Smithson's Monuments of Passaic New Jersey was also crucial in helping me figure out that attending to the "local" could open a lot of unexpected things up.

Perhaps race and gender as aspects of class? I certainly strive to be aware at all times of my privileged position.

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?

For a long time I would try and compose in my head not writing anything down until it was almost complete. I probably lost about twenty books that way--somehow I convinced myself that I had a wonderful memory. Since I got a little wiser to myself I proceed "serially" which just means coming to some sort of outside arrangement, like standing at the bus stop waiting for Totoro to show up. You just have to be a little patient.

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

Often a reading is the first place that I can see both what I'm doing over time in real time and how the reader might be brought along--you can learn a lot. The showbiz aspects I love, coming from a long line of cockney showboats.

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 relationship with theory is a pretty mercenary one--if it helps me to work or understand things better I'll use it, whether I've fully absorbed it or not. Spicer's "radio" makes as much sense as anything else.

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

Rolf Maurer, my editor at New Star, is remarkably free of publisher/editor vanity, so his very occasional and poetry suggestions carry great weight. In prose a good editor is essential for everyone but very hard to find and an insufficiently honored calling. The world needs patient editors much more than it needs bright new talent.

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

The past two or three years have been the first of my life where I didn't feel completely blocked all the time. I think I just outlived my own preciousness.

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

Never touch 'em, but our yard has a decently fruiting if precarious old tree which I have saved from the axe.

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

"There's no such thing as an old kitten", spoken to me in a dream by George Jones. George Stanley once told me that you never make any money as a poet, but can usually count on at least one good dinner a year.

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

It's easier now that I've let the boundaries slip a bit. And I've always liked the idea of having two mutually exclusive audiences, though that's not as true as it was.

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'm usually up very early surfing the web, keeping half an eye out for items for my weblog. I'll often start a piece of writing in our little shed in the back yard, away from the computer, stereo & TV. Lately I've taken to using green index cards

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

No one mentions liquor, coffee or drugs here, so I won't! Wallace Stevens or Sunflower Splendor can sometimes help get me "in the mood." A walk. A dictionary.

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

Unlike my other books, which were gathered over very long periods of time, The Age of Briggs & Stratton represents a continuous fairly short period of composition, and all the poems were published to my blog as I wrote them. I've been trying to make my writing simpler & cruder.

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?

All of those things are certainly as or more important to my work as other writing.

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

OED, The Bible, Lee Ann Brown, Walter Benjamin, William Blake, Hugh MacDiarmid, Mina Loy, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Gerry Gilbert, John Clare, John Wieners, Susan Howe, Ted Berrigan, James Thomson, Margaret Avison, James Schuyler, William Cowper, William Hazlitt, Charlotte Mew, Edward Lear, Jack Spicer, Thomas Bewick, Emily Dickinson, Basil Bunting, Arthur Mee's Children's Enyclopedia &c. My blog "mosses from an old manse" is a pretty good index of my likes.

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

Spend a winter north of the Arctic Circle, travel around the world on freighters & trains.

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?

The all-night DJ on a 500 watt FM station. I did get to do that at Vancouver's CITR with Lary Bremner in the 8o's--one night we played Sandanista! all the way through...Night manager at a slightly rundown but respectable residential hotel.

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

I don't ever remember seriously entertaining the idea of any other kind of life. I've been very lucky.

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

Film--Killer of Sheep Charles Burnett

Book--An Irish History of Civilization Donald Akenson

20 - What are you currently working on?

Parkway, the third book of Hammertown. A big picture book on dogs.

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