Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: ryan fitzpatrick

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ryan fitzpatrick. Photo credit: Erin Molly Fitzpatrick

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.

Casey Pope:

Dear ryan fitzpatrick,

My name is Casey Pope; I am student of Malvern’s grade 12 writer’s craft class. Thank you for your time and the opportunity to speak with you. I look forward to reading your responses. Cheers, Casey.

ryan fitzpatrick

Hi Casey,

The answers will be in the next post, but I just wanted to say that I thought your questions were great! This was really fun and I hope you’re enjoying it too (even though it’s for school).



Before publishing your full-length collection of poetry Fake Math you contributed to Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry and Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry. What prompted you to compose Fake Math and at what time did you know you were ready to publish it?


In retrospect, Fake Math was a kind of strange beast for me, since most of the work I do now is the result of discrete projects. Fake Math started out of a desire to just write, experimenting and playing with different ways of composing poems. Each individual poem is a (Google-assisted) improvisation based on an idea or a news story or bit of language that I thought was interesting for one reason or another. A lot of poems came out of this process having to do with things that frustrated me, coming out of a realization that the stories we’re told about our world don’t necessarily match up with the realities. It wasn’t until much later in the process that I realized (with the help of my friend Jason Christie) that many of the poems I was writing shared common themes and aesthetics. This was the point at which I realized that I had a book.

Finding the right time to send out work is difficult. You don’t want to send out your work either undercooked or too polished. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when to send out a manuscript. Because of this, I probably held on to Fake Math far longer than I should’ve. I used to tell people that it took me three years to write that book from the earliest drafts to my final edits, but a lot of that time was just letting the poems sit on the shelf so that I could come to them with a fresh eye.


During my research I read that you believe it is important to keep exploring what is possible in your practice, what are some of your methods or ways you go about exploring poetic practices and traditions?


One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from a lecture that American poet Ted Berrigan gave to a writing workshop of Allen Ginsberg’s where he essentially told the class that they shouldn’t bother to find their own voice and, instead, should copy the writers they admire and eventually something resembling a voice will emerge out of the scraps of those other writers that stick. Berrigan is speaking to young writers, but I think that his advice is useful to anyone, since I really believe that writers shouldn’t let themselves get trapped by their own identity (or by the identity of their voice). Writers need to continually renegotiate what they do and think critically about why they do it. Berrigan gave me permission to be a bit of a chameleon, slipping into different voices and remembering that, even though I might not be able to come up with new ideas, I can endlessly recombinate the ideas that are already there in order to reveal things that maybe we’ve forgotten about.

With this in mind, the one piece of advice I like to give people when they’re complaining about producing the same kinds of work over and over is that they should figure out what practices they lean on and disallow them. I think that the simplest way to grow as a writer and try new things is to prevent yourself from doing what you’re good at. For instance, after Fake Math, where a number of the poems effectively use humour, I cut humour pretty stringently from what I was doing, forcing me to write in different ways. These kinds of procedural constraints can be really helpful, I think.


In regards to the present would you say you have a limit on what poetic practices/ traditions you explore and incorporate into your work? If not now, in the future do you see yourself eventually reaching a limit?


If you would’ve asked this question to me five years ago, I might have given you a litany of things I wouldn’t do. I’m finding increasingly that there are always limits and borders to trouble and complicate and, to be honest, these spots are where the action is. I really think that limiting what you want to do poetically is a waste of time. What if I need to write a suite of sonnets for some reason? Sure! What if writing a suite of poems about my mom’s dogs was the best possible way to explore the perils of globalization? Bring it on! What if I write poems about things I don’t actually care about? An awesome idea!

I actually spent last summer writing a manuscript of poems that tested this last hypothesis after wondering what the actual limit between writer and reader is. I asked a wide and diverse group of people, most of whom I didn’t know, to commission poems from me. They told me what to write and how to write it. They told me when I messed it up. It was an eye opener. I realized that I could write about whatever and it would still be good (or at least entertaining). The things I care about still ended up in the poem because I wrote it. And most radically, I actually had to listen to what other people wanted to read and the poems became a weird kind of dialogue between what I wanted and what they wanted. Poetry should want to reach limits like these, because poetry (and art in general) is about revealing that those limits aren’t uncrossable or unbreakable. They might not even be there.


When you composed Fake Math, I read that you were influenced by theorist such as Marxist Theory and Democratic theory. Were you more concerned with incorporating the psychology or sociology behind these theorists into your poetry? As well what drew you to these specific theorists?


Part of writing is exploring ideas and one of the ways to do that is to read theory and philosophy. Even though theoretical concerns are important to what I write, I think that focusing too strenuously on theory opens the possibility of thinking less about other things — things that are maybe a bit more everyday. That said, a poet that strikes the right balance with theory can illuminate certain issues or throw the language we use “normally” into crisis.

I find that I’m interested in theoretical approaches that either trouble power constructions (Marxist theory fits this bill for the most part) or allow for spaces that are unknown or unknowable. I think that poetry’s role is to find ways to express the unexpressable (a terrible and impossible task) and my theoretical interests tend to mirror that approach.

Despite this, I will say that my poetry is just as influenced by Pokemon as it is by post-modernism.


In an Interview with Jonathan Ball you said something along the lines of it not being important to worry if your work is "new" but rather to take it out of the ‘safe zone’ and put it at risk. Do you often find your first drafts of writing to be in what you consider the "safe zone"? In addition how do you decipher when your work is in a "safe zone" from being at "risk"?


I think one of the major things missing from a lot of contemporary writing is a sense of bravery. Most people, including myself, are cowards, sticking to the routes they know. That said, it’s difficult to poetically negotiate a line between safety and risk. For me, these negotiations are personal since the point at which we can enact any kind of change in the word is at the level of our own bodies. So, I feel like anything I do in my poetry should come from something that makes me feel uncomfortable or extends from something in the world I don’t understand. I find that first drafts are often the rawest and least safe, getting cleaner as I revise them. Because of this, I prefer to throw out material that isn’t working rather than revise too often or too much. I don’t know that there is a way to decipher safety from risk in my work, except to continually and repeatedly trouble and complicate what I do.


In your poem “This Poetry Seems Like A Good Racket” you explore how poetry grabs readers attention the way a strong cup of coffee wakes someone up. You also include the image of a poem catching a fish giving the illusion of a hook writers use to capture their audiences attention. What were your purposes for discussing how a poem works and the connection between the writer and the reader and/ or the writer and their work? As well, this poem includes a lot of tension between familiarity and difference, what was your intention for creating this tension?


It seems like you’re referencing Jason Christie’s sharp reading of the poem on Sina Queyras’ blog Lemon Hound. I’m going to write around your question a bit because I think these dual concerns of familiarity/difference and reader/writer are deeply connected. Like Jason, I worry that poets concern themselves either too much or too little with questions of accessibility. Certainly, as you suggest, a poem needs a hook to catch the reader, though I much prefer the image of an anchor, which might give the reader something to hold onto in a poem that threatens to throw them overboard. The risk with giving the reader something is that you might give the reader everything, losing the dangerous ambiguity that a poem should have, edging into polemic or simple description.

The risk with giving the reader too little is that you give them nothing, pushing them away completely, giving them no opportunity to read and think about the words on the page. If a poem loses this tension between what we expect and what throws us into discomfort then why even write a poem. Why not write a newspaper article or essay or diary entry? Why not stand on a street corner and cry out your beliefs? It’s a difficult line to walk.


In the same interview with Jonathan Ball from question five, you stated that when writing your concern was how your work affects and effects the world around you. How does your writing, both the process of writing and the final product, impact you and what do you hope readers take away from your work?


It’s hard to say how exactly writing affects me. It’s a slow motion process of trying to understand the things I don’t quite understand and complicate the things that I understand too well. I don’t think that any one poem can affect an immediate change, but the continual process of rethinking the world through language can affect a gradual change. I don’t think I could actually tell you how though, so I’m probably lying.

As for readers, I don’t think I have anything specific I want them to take away from my work, though I hope they take away something. And I do like to hear what they take away.

ryan Fitzpatrick is soon to live and write from his future home in Vancouver (after leaving his present home of Calgary). He is the author of Fake Math (2007), published by Snare Books of Montreal. He is a former editor of Filling Station magazine and a past-curator of the Flywheel reading series. He has two forthcoming chapbooks: the politically-charged ghazals of 21st Century Monsters to be published by Red Nettle Press, and the short guide to near-extinct species of Narrative Taxidermies.

Born in the vacation destination of Hawaii, Casey was named by her Grandmother after a soap opera star. Unfortunately for Casey, her life was not accompanied with a script and her story was left open for her to write. From Hawaii she moved to foggy San Francisco and currently finds herself residing in Toronto. She is often found distant from battling her daydreams. Upon reading “you are what you love, not what loves you,” something she once saw graffiti on a wall; her life was put into perspective. Her older sister is not only an influential person to Casey, but also a close friend. Throughout her childhood, Casey’s only audience to her writing was her mother who often received numerous poems found in Mother’s Day cards.

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