Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ'S Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Vincent Ponka

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TTQ'S Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Vincent Ponka

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets - 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Vincent Ponka grew up in rural Northwestern Ontario, and moved to Toronto in his early twenties. He has a degree in history, and a minor in philosophy, which have had a large influence on his writing. After graduating, he attended film school where he specialized in scriptwriting; then spent ten years in the Toronto film industry, and after that worked in broadcasting. He's father to one-year-old twins.

His poetry has been published in Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament, The Toronto Quarterly (issue 5), Otoliths (issue 10), The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, Common Sky: Canadian Writers Against the War, Kiss Machine, Peter O'Toole, and Broken Pencil Magazine. He has written chapbooks entitled Vodka on the Rocks and three volumes of Subway Poems. His greatest love is the novel, and currently he has two making their rounds to publishers: Bastards of Destruction and Vicious Dogs.

TTQ- What are your impressions of the Toronto poetry scene? Do you find Toronto's poetry scene to be as vibrant as other cities you have lived in?

VP- Toronto definitely has the best poetry scene of any city I have lived in. I know of a few weekly reading series that give poets a chance to try out material in front of a (hopefully) receptive audience. My friend, and fine poet/playwright Cathy Petch hosts the Plasticine Poetry Series (the 3rd Sunday of every month at the Central Pub, 6pm), and I know it’s a great place to be. I admit I never regularly attend these readings since I am either working too much, and tend to be too anti-social for my own good. There are a number of small presses and journals (like TTQ!) that give people a place to publish. Seeing words in print definitely helps keep poets working at their craft.

TTQ- Were you fortunate enough to have a mentor of some kind who encouraged and/or inspired you to try and take your writing to the next level, and what advice would you give to young writers trying to get themselves published?

VP- Keep writing. Keep submitting. Getting published in print is tough and only getting tougher. Only a handful of new authors have books published in Canada each year, and even established writers can find themselves struggling to find a publisher. When it comes to poems and short stories, aside from the many great literary magazines we have in this country, the Internet has opened up a whole world of opportunity to get your work out there. E-zines are a good place to start getting your work some attention, and help to build a publishing history. Editors are busy and it makes their job a bit easier if they see that other editors have liked your work. They can also see that you have put in the time, and are serious about your craft. They know that getting published isn’t easy, and if your work has been placed in several e-zines, they may look at your submission in a more favourable light.

I have never been fortunate enough to have a mentor that helped me in a significant way, though I would appreciate one! As mentioned, editors are busy, and it would certainly make their job easier if Margaret Atwood were to drop Bastards of Destruction onto their desk and announce:

“This book is marvelous. Vincent Ponka is the next great voice in Canadian fiction.”

Who could say no to Ms. Atwood? She’s done it for others, so could I be next, please? Surely she’d love a novel that begins: Anderson Powell sits on his penthouse balcony drinking a mug of strong sweet coffee and smoking a joint. The pot is helping settle the cocaine jitters.

In terms of the importance of mentors I would imagine they could be invaluable. Writing can be hard lonely work, and even something as simple as getting positive feedback from a person whose work you respect can keep you going for months. I took David Donnell’s Poetry Master Class, at the University of Toronto, and after the last class I brought in one of his books, and asked him to sign it for me. I was, and remain a big fan, but didn’t want to make a big thing about it until that last night. He signed the book “To Vincent, a great poet,” and even though he may sign every student’s book that way, I felt a certain vindication in regards to my poetry. Take what you can get!

TTQ- You recently had a poem published in the Rogue Stimulus: The Stephen Harper Holiday Anthology for a Prorogued Parliament, by Mansfield Press. What are your opinions about the Harper governments handling of the publishing industry in Canada, and do you think literary journals have a bleak future in Canada?

VP- Wow. It’s going to be hard not to turn my response into a rant. I will pause to catch my breath and get my anger in check, and say that it was great to be a part of this Mansfield Press book alongside so many fine poets. Okay, rant time. As someone who has worked in the arts (film, music and TV) for close to 15 years, I have seen first-hand how negative an impact the Harper government cuts have had on cultural industries. I suppose it stems from his government’s attitude that they represent only those 30-some-odd-percent of Canadians that voted for them and that they couldn’t care less about the rest. (This attitude was infamously encapsulated by Tony Clement’s comment that they don’t govern on behalf of the “chattering classes”. What is poetry and literature but chatter for the ages) I think that if Stephen Harper saw someone drowning he would call out to them before tossing them a life preserver: “Did you vote Conservative?” if they call back “No” I imagine he would sit and watch them go under. He would likely pull out his cellphone, and record a video of the event to enjoy for years to come. Too harsh? Not at all. I was at last year's Gemini Awards. It was a big celebration of Canadian film and culture (hosted by Dave Foley with an open martini bar! Fabulous!), and even though it was in Ottawa, not a single representative of Harper’s government was in attendance.

Small literary magazines have been extremely hard hit. Keeping such a venture going issue after issue has never been easy, and now it is that much more difficult to keep it financial viable. That being said, it is within our power as readers and writers to help. We need to buy these magazines, and subscribe to them in order to keep them afloat. They are important to keep alive or we may lose a generation of literary talent. Surely even a Harper would see that as a negative. Okay, probably not.

TTQ- Tell us about your writing rituals. When, where, and how do you prefer to write, and what are you working on these days?

VP- I find that I have different rituals and methodology for each project. I wrote my novel Bastards of Destruction when I was working in the film biz. There is a lot of downtime during a shooting day, so I would write on the back of each day’s scripts, or whatever scraps of paper I could find. Sometimes I would even be organized enough to have a small Rhodia pad in my pocket. Each weekend I would input those pages into my computer. I wrote my next novel Vicious Dogs during my three month winter break from the film biz so I wrote it directly onto my computer. The only thing I keep the same when writing novels is to put words down every day. Keeping contact with the characters and the story is essential to my writing process.

With poetry I have different methods as well. I have some poems that come from flashes of inspiration that I write extremely quickly, and don’t edit. I see these as moment-in-time poems. Take this moment, written about my wife (we were dating at the time):

Art Matters

Korea, you
are sitting next
to me on a bench at the AGO
between W & M (where
I once wrote
a poem
about Jack
son Pollock)
& I say
I love your stomach
and want to write
a poem upon it.
I might, for (why
are you
laughing?)
there is little
time left.

With other projects, like my Napoleon Poems or Proust Poems, it is more of an academic exercise. For the latter I will sit with Proust in front of me, and use the text as a source for a poem. I see it like a sculptor who has a block of granite, and cuts away and away until they are left with the Aphrodite who was inside the stone the whole time. It takes a long time, and many edits before, for example, page three of Proust’s dense prose becomes this:

proust. 3

Drowsy in an armchair
after dinner.
The magic chair
through time and space.

My sleep so heavy I lost all sense
of place. When
I awoke at midnight I had the most
rudimentary sense of existence.
I was the cave-dweller

then memory
would come like a rope
from the abyss of centuries.

Perhaps conviction and immobility struggled
to discover me
through the darkness.

I was lying face to the wall
my mind glittering flame.

I enjoy challenging myself with different methodology and would encourage all beginning (and even seasoned) writers to do so. It is a great warm up exercise to begin your writing day.

In terms of what I am working on now, I have one-year-old twins, and as profound an experience that that has been, it has cut into my writing time. I am trying to decide which of the several ideas I have for the next long prose project is the most interesting to me, but there is no clear winner yet. I have been submitting my work to publishers, and am making plans to start a small publishing concern that would specialize in beautiful books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that challenge convention. Though it is a tough industry, I am drawn to dive in nonetheless. We will be putting out a call for manuscripts soon!

TTQ- Is there one poetry book in particular, or a group of books that inspired you in some way to try your hand at writing poetry?

VP- I only began writing poetry in a serious way in my late twenties (ten years ago), and before that I was strictly into prose. I enjoyed reading poetry, but it wasn’t until I discovered two books that I was then drawn to write it myself. The first was The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle which is a collection of d.a. levy’s art and poetry. The second was The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry edited by Alan Kaufman. Both showed me poetry that was coming from a non-academic place: political, angry, provocative, direct poetry. d.a. levy wrote in the late 60’s, committed suicide at 28 (some say he was murdered) yet produced an abundance of quality work. Suburban Monastery Death Poem (I loved it for the title alone!) is a poem that should be placed among the greatest in literature for the counter-culture era:

only ten blocks away
from my total helplessness
from my boredom enforced by the state
they are looting stores
trying to get televisions
so they can watch the riots
on the 11 pm news

A highlight from The Outlaw Bible is David Lerner’s Mein Kampf which is great from start to finish:

I want people to hear my poetry and
get headaches
I want people to hear my poetry and
vomit

I want people to hear my poetry and
weep, scream, disappear, start bleeding,
eat their television sets, beat each other to death with
swords

and a little further on he writes:

I came not to bury poetry
but to blow it up
...
throw it off a cliff into
icy seas and
see it the motherfucker and swim for its life

because love is an excellent thing
surely we need it

but my friends...

there is so much to hate These Days

I love the anger in this poem - the manifesto quality. It was like a call to arms for me, and I saw a place where my own sensibilities would fit the in great broad world of poetry. These books showed me just how wide a world it could be.

* * *

This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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