Thursday, December 11, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Blair Trewartha

I met Blair Trewartha in Toronto in October. He'd just launched his first book with Palimpsest and had been press ganged into hosting Palimpsest Night at Another Story Bookstore.

One thing I've really liked about publishing with Palimpsest is the connections it has forged between its authors: it was Palimpsest's idea that I tour Stowaways with Yvonne Blomer and Patricia Young, for instance.

The idea that we're not just poets publishing individually with a small independent, but pressmates? Well, it's another way of making community, of forging connection.

And I'm all for that.

(Several of us had dinner before the Palimpsest Night at a bistro with a cheese theme, where the kimchi on my charcuterie plate prompted Blair and I into a discussion of our respective stints teaching English in South Korea and, eventually, our predilection for chapbooks. Which led to the chapbook question in this interview...see?)

What do you want people to know about Easy Fix?

Easy Fix is in a lot of ways about feeling trapped, but constantly obsessing about being freed from that trap. The poems explore that theme through historical narratives, confessional poems, interpretations of current events, and in general, they attempt to show the obsessions and daydreams, the constant cycle of fantasizing about landing on a destination that we don’t have the route to, which obviously leads us to remain exactly where we are. The book was written at a time in my life that is representative of that. Fortunately, since finishing the book, I managed to find a way out, which was both as ridiculously easy and terribly complex as simply removing myself from the situation.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I try to approach readings as a social opportunity and community event, and hopefully a chance to hear someone new that inspires me. It’s a great way to meet other writers and people in general, and I’m always willing to chat with a fellow poetry lover over a coffee or beer. Outside of the less intimate online “community,” it is rare that you get a genuine sense of a poetry community. That’s what I get out of reading events. With that being said, networking can be absolutely exhausting too, so sometimes I find it necessary to just take a break, hole up in my apartment, and read. Those are the nights when I don’t feel like talking to anyone, and I’ve learned that they’re best spent reading or writing solo.

In terms of actually being featured as a reader, I think I have a love/hate relationship with the act. It comes with the territory if you want to publish and develop some kind of readership, and I’ll always accept an invitation gratefully, but if I had my choice, I’d rather be an audience member than the person on stage. But, I expect that’s the case with a lot of writers.

Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’

For myself, the first book was more process than product. It was about accumulating all of the work I had written since I started publishing in lit mags, sorting through all of the shit, and using the handful of decent poems I had leftover to start the base of my project. Then, with the guidance of an incredibly talented and dedicated editor, Jim Johnstone, we sewed those pieces together and started building. As a result, a lot of the poems in my first book were written on demand during that process. That might sound unnerving or unwise to some because it means I ran the risk of having pieces that weren’t edited or polished to the full extent due to time constraints, but I trusted my editor. In fact, I think it had one major benefit: by creating new pieces closer and closer to the publication deadline, it meant that everything in Easy Fix was the best of what I was capable of producing at that time. I think that’s what a first book should be, simply a representation of your best work at a given time period. It may be successful, or it may flop, but either way you should’ve tapped yourself dry at the time. All I can hope for is that my next book is better.

There are a lot of flinty edges and might-have-beens in Easy Fix, but my favourite is from “Breaking Points”: “I used to pray incessantly. / Not to god, but to prevent / the sway of sucker / punches, the flash of red / and echo of every elevator.” Tell me your theories on incipient catastrophes.

Sometimes the worst things that happen in our lives are the things imagined, the ones that produce countless hours of anxiety or stress, whether they end up actually happening or not. Chances are, whatever does actually come into being is going to be far worse if it’s preceded by fear. It makes us hyper sensitive and knocks us off our feet before we even try to brace ourselves for what’s really coming. That’s what I was trying to convey in "Breaking Points," especially in the final stanza. It’s surprising how simple things can be if you are able to eliminate all the stress and anxious thoughts that come before it. Unfortunately, that’s incredibly difficult to do.

You’ve published two chapbooks to date. What, for you, is the difference between a chapbook and a trade collection? Why do you bother? 

My first two chapbooks, Break In (Cactus Press, 2010) and Porcupine Burning (Baseline Press, 2012), were both stepping-stones to my debut trade collection, Easy Fix. That’s the beauty of chapbooks (when you publish them first, which many writers do). They prepare you for the full collection in whatever ways necessary up to that point. Break In taught me the process of editing above all, but also how to craft a series of interconnected poems to create a final, somewhat cohesive collection. It taught me to let go of lines and poems, and to accept criticism and advice without being defensive or discouraged. Porcupine Burning, being a historical narrative, gave me the chance to write about a single concept while still trying to ensure that the poems could stand alone if they had to. That proved to be far more difficult than I had expected, but nonetheless quite rewarding.

That’s not to say chapbooks are only worthwhile if written before your first full-length. I’d gladly publish another chapbook at any point in my future writing career. They’re concise, often incredibly well made by hand, and they sometimes allow you to tell a story more completely than a full-length book because of its condensed size. You have less of a chance of boring your reader or losing the energy and momentum of the narrative in 10-20 pages. In a full-length collection, if you stick to one point for too long, you can lose the pulse of the book.

Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard? 

I’ve only been to Winnipeg once when I was in my early twenties traveling by bus from Guelph Ontario to Vancouver. We only stopped there for a total of two hours, so all I really got to experience was the bus station and Tim Hortons. I think I walked around for a bit searching for a bookstore, but I couldn’t find one before I had to get back on the bus. My impression driving through, however, was that it seemed familiar and welcoming even though I was a total stranger to the area. It reminded me of a much bigger version of the town I grew up around, Clinton Ontario. It too is a small bit of urban surrounded by a whole lot of rural. Realistically though, it’s difficult to get any impression of a city within the span of an hour or two and the radius of a city block. I would love the opportunity to spend some time there though.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

In terms of writing, I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s both intimidating and exciting that I’m starting from scratch with zero poems collected, so whatever I start writing next will be completely new.

Post first book, I am trying to focus more on consuming rather than producing. I’ve read everything new that I can get my hands on lately. I’ve been sifting through a large collection that I purchased in Fredericton this October at Poetry Weekend, which includes James Arthur, Don McKay, Kerry-Lee Powell, M. Travis Lane, Zach Wells, and Steve Howell, among others. I recently read Paul Vermeersch’s new book, which I quite liked, as well as Claire Caldwell and Sara Peters’ debut collections. I’ve been spending some time with Jeffery Donaldson’s book of essays, Echo Soundings, as well as his poetry collection Slack Action. I highly recommend his work. Also, if you’re up for something beautifully tragic, I recently finished Shane Neilson’s We Need our Names and Out of the Mouth. I couldn’t recommend those titles more. Shane writes incredibly heavy, but absolutely stunning poetry.

In general, past and present, I’ve devoured anything written by the following poets: Matthew and Michael Dickman, Eduardo C. Corral, Julie Cameron-Gray, Marc Di Saverio, Jim Johnstone, Jeramy Dodds, Ken Babstock, Sandy Pool, Mathew Henderson, Patrick Lane, as well as those mentioned above.

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