Thursday, June 5, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Pete Smith

English grammar-school dropout in the 60s. Attuned to poetry when the hormones started running. Blessed with a teacher who went outside the curriculum & continued his self-education through magazines: Agenda, Stand, Grosseteste Review. Strives to maintain catholic taste (not RC). Trained as a Psych Nurse “for something to fall back on”: failed to fall & retired in 2007. Emigrated to BC in 1974. Two marriages (one current): two kids, 4 grandkids (1 in Van, 3 in Calgary). Hobbies include breathing, hiking, kayaking. Reads obsessively. Life-long small press fan – Nomados & Book Thug among current favourites in Canada.

Has written reviews &/or essays (from micro to a forthcoming book chapter) on W.D. Snodgrass (Agenda, UK); Kathryn MacLeod [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Alice Notley, Karlien van den Beukel, Rosmarie Waldrop [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Tertia Longmire & Aaron Williamson, Keston Sutherland, Lissa Wolsak, Lisa Robertson, Nancy Shaw & Catriona Strang (all in The Gig, Toronto); Jennifer Moxley (jacket #9, on-line); Barry MacSweeney (The Paper, UK); forthcoming - Trevor Joyce (Crayon #5, USA); ****** ****** (TCR, Spring ’08); John James (The Salt Companion to John James, UK).

Chapbooks: 20/20 Vision and cross of green hollow (Wild Honey, Eire); John’s Book of Alleged Dances (Kamloops); Harm’s Length (Poetical Histories, Cambridge); Strum of Unseen (above/ground, Canada).

Did the first interview with Lissa Wolsak in Six Poets: Views & Interviews, The Gig Documents Series, #2. Nate Dorward interviewed me and featured a Pete Smith Sampler in The Fly on the Page, Gig Docs #3. And poems in anthologies: 100 Days, Barque Press, Cambridge/April Eye: Poems for Peter Riley, infernal methods, Cambridge/A Meeting for Douglas Oliver, infernal methods, Street Editions & Poetical Histories, Cambridge.

Long sequences: CLIV (Alterran Poetry Assemblage); Second Horace and Evacuation Procedures (Great Works); Mother Tongue: Father Silence (Tinfish); Out-takes From the Deanna Ferguson Show (Antiphonies, The Gig).

A ms Bindings With Discords seeks a Canadian home.

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life?
It brought me into a community – not just the “being published” but some good feedback (especially publisher Randolph Healy’s note telling me he had to pry it out of the hands of the girl at the printer’s). It opened the door to a reading at ksw in 1999 (I don’t think they’d read a word of mine, but knew I was to be published by Wild Honey who’d published Maurice Scully who’d just come out with Reality Street who had published Lisa Robertson who they KNEW was damned good).

2 - How long have you lived in Kamloops, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
In K since 1974. I have only now begun to write the place out of somewhere inside me – before that I was a tourist who’d forgotten to go home. I am very conscious of not truly belonging & of being an uninvited guest on Interior Salish land. Nevertheless, there are a few places I go to recharge my spirit & that chime with places I carry from my earliest years – rivershores, small spinneys, fields in one direction, town the other. Race & gender: again very conscious of the presumed dominance within which I was raised – English (the language, the history, the warmongering self-hymnic traditions), male (a few inches of pipe & a bag of seed make you leader of whose gang?). Others must judge that consciousness’s impact on my work.

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?
There isn’t a usual where; there has been a when for a number of years, though, & that is May. But a trigger can be sound, overheard talk, a rhythm, another work of art, music or visual generally, that somehow announces itself as my next project. Of double necessity – having ADHD & only small chunks of time within which to work – I’ve written sequences or worked out of existing texts. I guess a book has been the general idea, but rarely actually getting round to submit it anywhere, well the next current piece is always more engrossing (Motto at our house: Salience Rules).

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Part of. I enjoy popping down to Grinders Coffee House on open mic night & reading at a bunch of punk, goth type folk who are there to hear their friend sing a Kurt Cobain song or whatever & actually registering a silence that indicates listening (testimonial: Hannah , daughter, was at the back of the room one time & heard a kid say “No idea what he’s on about, but I fuckin like it” ). In a more rarified setting (CafĂ© Rouge, Cambridge, 1999) I interrupted my reading to say “that poem should have ended 4 lines earlier” because it had suddenly become clear that was the case.
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 interested in theories that stretch our understanding of what it means to be/ human; how to live in community out of compassion & respect, justly; how to confront our demons without projecting them onto others; how to behave on this planet, among these diverse fellows & creatures; where the moral impulse comes from & what its dangers & limitations are… In pursuit of which I perform midnight raids on many disciplines: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, physics, theology, literary theory, philosophy, anthropology, botany. Amen. Hanging out with brain-injured & disabled folk keeps me almost-honest. The current Qs still seem to hover around the nature of self, concepts of mind, etc. (The navel has never seemed so fascinating: see Jerry Fodor for some respite.) A task of the poet is surely to question received opinion – all of it. This is, I take it, where theories attract poets.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
For poems: editors haven’t asked for much to be changed – (“the life so short, the craft so long to learn”) but I did for many years insist on many, many drafts. Now, I tend to just get it down or toss it out. Nate Dorward has been a tremendous help in editing book reviews, both grammatically & in challenging the reading if weak or unclear. Lyn, my wife, is a marvellous first reader, very partial to elegance.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Easier insofar as I used to write stand-alone lyric poems, but now write mostly long pieces, sequences – from songs to concerti. I literally made a book a while back & that was a wonderful process. It’s hard to definitively place some poems/sequences though: sort of Niedecker problem.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
December 07 – that’s how long the ones we stored for winter lasted. Best eaten outdoors with a good cheese (in case the pear’s a bit flat) on a windy day.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“… a little more to the left…”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to criticism)? What do you see as the appeal?
Apparently quite easy, if you call what I do criticism, I guess I call it “reading”. Nate Dorward pointed out that much of my poetry was literary criticism in disguise (or some such term). I’ve gone through some of my earlier works & might well collect them under the title (sub-title, more like) “Literary Industry”. Wow, ain’t that exciting?

The appeal has been, in some of the longer pieces, to spend a long time with one writer (otherwise I flip through this, read that, return to another poem in the mag that came last week, month…) & learn some of another imagination’s workings, & another person’s way of being in the world. Yes, meeting someone at some depth, I guess.

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?
None apparent. I learned how to compose in my head as a much younger man & still do sometimes. Now I grab some books in a bag, head out the door to town, hope there will be lulls in the day when I can read a bit or even write (we’ve embarked on some amazingly time-consuming projects lately & this is a temporary pattern). There was a typical day once but I forget how it went.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Stalled is no worry – there are enough words, poems, chapbooks etc out there already. And isn’t the “rest” in music an integral part of the structure? Stalled is part of life’s rhythm. Stale is a worry: to be midwife & mother, if you will, to this thing & then discover it’s stillborn. Sad. To recharge: go to some old standbys (16th Century English, earlier British, post WW2 alternative scene, or try to abandon books altogether, take a long walk, play some ugly, angular improvised music).

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
My chaos is all-consuming. I have a poor chronological sense of my work, I can be years on a sequence because I lose it, or forget I’m writing it. I think the improvisation on Deanna Ferguson’s works in Antiphonies, The Gig 2008, is the last thing I finished. That’s as far down a stand-up, fast-on-the-pun, wild west road as I would want to go. It’s a continuation of an anti-poetry exploration though & that will no doubt emerge in a new formless form soon. No, I think I’ve finished others since then – they’ll turn up. Around 1996 I started taking meds for ADHD & in my writing began to approach the world more obliquely, letting my life, mostly as memory, come in unbidden: things started hopping about then.

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?
Responses to live readings, concerts, photography & other visual (generally abstract) art, conversations. Good food. Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language is a source. Standing beside a tree trunk during a high wind puts wonderful sound-shapes inside a person.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Ahhhhhhhhhh! Books filled the house I was raised in – a row house in Coventry, England, with 7.000 or more books in it. Still abiding from early years – Beckett, John Berger, Alan Garner, the 1001 Arabian Nights (2 vols illustrated – it was my adolescent version of Playboy – “I kept it under my bed for the stories”). Pascal Quignard’s & Peter Russell’s re/inventions of classical authors – Albucius & Quinitilius. It’s been such a long apprenticeship, so many phases. Needing alternatives to the personal/social misery of Philip Larkin & the cosmic misery of Hughes, I went to the New American Poetry anthology (Black Mountain more than the beats, though Wieners’ life-work continues to be compelling), to European poets through a Penguin books series & to the “deep-image” writings (James Wright more than Bly & Tomas Transtromer more than any). If I were only to read (Your Alternative School here….) I would simply have my own narrow orthodoxy. Second Isaiah in David Rosenberg’s translation is magnificent. The British Revival poets: Rileys, John, Peter & Denise, Prynne, James et al. Some quiet outsiders appeal a lot – Merrill Gilfillan in the USA, Guy Birchard in Canada. The 2 Canadians who first hit me, continue to do so whenever I return to them, Webb & Newlove. Ahhhh! Too many – the plot is to have too many to form a canon, to keep ‘em alive beyond the canon’s walls. Deanna Ferguson – some lines of hers wield the sharpest scalpel I know of. The kids have got to know who else has been around.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Build a house. It’s coming soon to a theatre near me. Next year, Lyn says.

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?
Sailor, coffee shop owner, aesthetician, chef, rock/blues/folk/alt singer, layabout.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There was too much blank graph paper lying around. There were too many facts to record in a work-day, behaviours to observe, speculations to suppress; in writing my own poetry I was beholden to no-one. I had to reinvent the world, because the one I worked in was too surrealistic.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Great? Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language from Zone Books keeps me calling back. I like novels that are impossible: Steve Erickson’s Arc d’X is a pretty wild ride, or Our Ecstatic Days – novels that are either brilliant or dreadful, that take the risk. Movies suffer from a “tyranny of the image”. Boycott them I say. That said: I just watched Starting Out in the Evening and it’s almost flawless.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Rediscovering my study. Renovating a house. Looking for several unfinished, but clearly misremembered projects – something involving words that contain SENS with the sens removed & another thing building itself around the word “rogation”. Erasing a Victorian novel with more textual & social layers than Tom Philips’ Humument contained, but without his flash colours – hoping the language flashes. A planned work with a visual artist on a project in Kamloops, involving several pairings of writers & artists for next year. I want to increase my techno skills & use my I-pod & mic to create radio works out of actual sounds & talk, taking polyvocal to the polis.

12 or 20 questions archive