Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Michael Knox

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Michael Knox

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Emma Jung:

Hi Michael, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I’ve really enjoyed reading both your biographies and your work. I think you are a really great poet and look forward to hearing your response!

The majority of your work is written in relation to Toronto and surrounding areas. I read that you studied in Germany at the University of Konstanz, which I’m sure is an interesting place. How is it that you only seem to focus on the place you were born and not new places you have discovered? Is it more meaningful for you to write within the boundaries of your home country and why?

Michael Knox:

The funny thing for me about writing and place, is that I can’t get my poetic vision of a place unless I’m away from it. When I lived in Germany I wrote about Canada, and when I moved back I wrote about Hamilton even though I was living in downtown Toronto (as I have been since). For myself, I find that the problem with writing in a location where I’m living is that when I sit down to write I describe what it looks like, rather than the things about it that make it feel like it does. Essentially, this is all about my ability to be faithful to my own feelings about a place and how that is only really possible when I am not in it.


I read in an interview with Open Book: Toronto, that you were inspired to work with Michael Holmes at ECW press after reading Ashland by Gil Adamson. I read the poem “Black Wing” from Ashland and the subject matter shares many parallels with your works in North End Poems. What was it that drew your attention from this novel? In what ways do you think it influenced your writing?


Ashland was an important book for me for two reasons: First, it was the first time I read someone writing in a way that I felt was related to my own in terms of the way it attempted to engage human feeling and cinematic connection to surroundings. It was the first time I saw someone doing effectively what I was really trying to do, so it was very compelling to me. Second, I knew that if the editor liked Ashland, they would probably like my work, too. When I sent Play Out the Match to be published, I believed that its best chance was at ECW. After a year and half sitting in Michael Holmes’s slush pile (and that thing is half a yard high most days), Michael finally read it, and it turned out I’d been right. One’s work must find the correct readers (and editors) and Ashland was vital in helping my first book to find these.


I think your writing of book lyric sequences is very interesting and unique. What encourages you to pursue this style of writing? Does it in some way increase the meaning behind your book?


I think that one of the problems many contemporary readers have with poetry (and hence its abysmal sales and cultural prominence compared to say, the novel) is that most readers do enjoy some element of story. The lyric sequence allowed me to experiment with multiple voices, places and points of view, and it allowed me to thread these poems together with a narrative operating behind. The idea is that the reader could read any poem on its own, but if read in sequence they could follow the story line. I thought that this would help to make the book something that people who didn’t realize they liked poetry would enjoy, and maybe read some more poetry. If it succeeded in this, it did so minimally.


Your dedication to one character in your book The North End Poems is really quite amazing. What is the significance of Nick Macfarlane, does he hold greater meaning to you than just a character in your book? What does his existence signify in your work?


I like Nick. I’d hang out with him. That was really the idea I had in writing characters like him and Scotty and K, etc. I wanted to create characters of a type, certainly faithful to the sorts of young people you encounter in places like the north end of Hamilton, but I also wanted to make someone likeable. As a writer, you have to enjoy the company of your characters because you're going to be with them for a long time (far longer than any reader is going to be), and so whatever your character is or does has to be something you enjoy. Nick doesn’t hold greater meaning for me than any other character in any of my books. He’s more detailed, I think, fuller because I’ve spent more time with him and on him, but he is someone whose life I thought people would enjoy reading about.


You channel a lot of big topics in your work like fear, passion, masculinity, love, devotion, etc. How do you begin to approach such powerful topics? Do you use your own experience or just have a great understanding of these kinds of topics? Or is your poetry a way of exploring them?


I certainly don’t write about my own life. As I say to my family or friends when I give them copies of my book “I’m not in here and neither are you, so don’t look for that.” That said, one’s life and life experience certainly influence one’s work. It’d be silly for me to pretend that my poems exist in some kind of creative vacuum that is separate from the rest of my life.

In terms of the bigger themes I tend to work in, I tend to write about the things that fascinate and scare me. In a lot of ways this is a way of exploring them through creation, of understanding better how to unpack these ideas through writing about them. Ultimately, it is a way of showing my fascinations with these things, and gives readers an opportunity to come along for the ride if you will.


I read that you are working on another book that is in the style of a book lyric sequence themed around disaster. What are some things that influence you into writing about a theme such as disaster? Also how is your new work coming along?


My new book isn’t a lyric sequence anymore. It started out that way but it had a bit of an identity crisis and then changed completely. It’s now a novel. I’m working through drafts with a press presently, and doing what I’ve always done as a writer: wait on my editor to get around to it.

Disaster and how we understand it in our lives is something I’ve long been interested in. Disasters we should see coming but don’t, disasters we cause for ourselves through our actions, and the disasters that absolutely blindside us, these are where my interest lay when I was finished The North End Poems. Since the manuscript is done, I’m mainly on to thinking about new things now. That’s the brilliant thing about writing: one can always get on to unpacking their new interests, concerns and obsessions.


Thanks again.

Michael Knox has published two books with ECW Press: Play Out the Match (2006) and The North End Poems (2008). Michael lives, writes and teaches in Toronto.

Emma Jung was born into the hustle and bustle of Toronto's core and enlightened further the spring season. Infused with a touch of Asia, she has always been a unique child. Deprived of a middle name, she has been searching for herself through the craft of writing short stories and so far meaningless poems. Her words first reached the eyes of the public through a truly inspirational haiku titled “Beaches” which was published in her third grade. Since then she has continued to write and will hopefully have many publications in the future. She currently resides with a quaint family of 4, in an enclosure of turquoise and green where she readily awaits her many adventures to come.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page