Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Damian Rogers

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Damian

September 28, 2009 -

Open Book: Toronto:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

Damian Rogers:

My first poetry publication was, somewhat incredibly, in Brick Magazine in the winter of 2005. I submitted on a friend’s recommendation and I was too green to realize how ballsy this was. Michael Redhill — after agreeing to look at the poems with a not-unfriendly warning that he couldn’t possibly publish any of them — surprised us both by accepting four. It was such a thrilling experience — it really is one of the most beautiful and well-edited literary journals I’ve ever seen — and I bought copies for everyone I knew. My second publication was in a hideously ugly journal out of a university in upstate New York that held onto the poem for ages and then printed it with a typo in the title — further underscoring how outrageously lucky I had been my first time out.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

DR:

In many ways, the Canadian cultural experiences that continue to affect me most deeply are of a musical nature, since I moved to Canada with my husband, who plays drums in a Toronto-based rock band, and many of my good friends are musicians. Music has always been an intimate influence.

Many of my favourite booky cultural experiences have happened during the annual Scream Literary Festival, like listening to Christopher Dewdney perform a book-length reading at the Brickworks while frogs and blackbirds provided backup a couple years ago. Coach House events are also consistently inspiring; I’ll never forget listening to Lisa Robertson read “The Value Village Lyric” over the loudspeaker at the Value Village at Bloor and Lansdowne. And the Griffins are always fun; I loved seeing Kevin Connolly and Jeramy Dodds receive nominations last year.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

DR:

Well, I am going to just list the three books I have most often pressed into visiting hands within the last year:

Kevin Connolly’s Revolver (Drift, too, for that matter)
Gil Adamson’s The Outlander
Jeramy Dodds’s Crabwise to the Hounds

There are so many writers in Toronto alone who I admire. I’d try to name check them all, but I’d invariably forget someone I love and then feel eternally terrible about it. I will say that I’m looking forward to Kathryn Borel, Jr.’s wine-soaked memoir Corked and I bet even Derek McCormack’s grocery lists are dazzling, original and utterly disturbed. But I’m stopping here, before I go crazy.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

DR:

I will write anywhere, but I love writing when I travel, whether it’s in another city or somewhere quite rural. What works best for me — because I can’t help but be quite social when there are people around — is to string several days together where I barely talk to anyone. I think my absolute ideal is to spend time in a country where I don’t speak the language, where I’m surrounded by sounds that I can’t understand, conversations I can’t jump in or eavesdrop on, but I haven’t traveled like that in years. House-sitting for friends in the country helps me and so does locking myself in my office and not answering the phone.

OBT:

William Faulkner was once asked what book he wished he had written; he chose Moby-Dick (with Winnie-the-Pooh as a close second). Is there a book that you wish you had written?

DR:

My first thought was the story “The Elephant’s Child” from Kipling’s Just So Stories, because my grandmother read that to me over and over and over again, and I love how sensuous and playful the language is — “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees” — that story is burnt into my DNA. I also felt very close to Salinger’s Franny and Zooey when I first read it as a teenager. In fact, I had an intense, long-term friendship with a boy that sprang out of the fact that we’d both fallen in love with that book the summer after we graduated high school. There are many books I wish I’d had the stuff to write, but they felt like they sprang from their authors’ inner worlds, not mine.

OBT:

Is there a book that you think you should have read by now but haven’t?

DR:

Oh god, all of them. I seem to be under the delusion that possession is nine-tenths of consumption — my walls, floors, desk and tables are covered with my ever-growing reading list.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

DR:

The Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs. I think that the Beats are a bit like The Smiths — if you didn’t get into them when you were 15, it might be too late for you. Though my mother gave me Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind when I was 12 (and I loved it so much I did an oral report on him in 8th grade), I didn’t read On the Road until my thirties. I’ve never been that attracted to Burroughs’ writing, but I like these letters a lot, and they have been a key to the rest of his work for me. I think it’s the intimate tone he uses when addressing Ginsberg, the way he shares his erotic fantasies and acute observations, that lends him a human warmth, even when he sounds like a complete reptile.

I’m also planning to reread Joe Pernice’s excellent novel It Feels So Good When I Stop to brush up for an interview I’m doing with him at the end of the week.

Truthfully, I always have a stack of books on the go simultaneously. Right now it’s Human Dark With Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy; W.S. Merwin’s most recent collection, The Shadow of Sirius, which he won the Pulitzer for; a few anthologies — Poems for the Millennium, Poetry Out Loud (poems for recitation, something I’m trying to teach myself to do) and an old hippie one my mom used to own when I was a kid called From Beowulf to Beatles that I tracked down on e-Bay. And there are a couple research books on Shakers and shamans sitting on my bedside table.

OBT:

Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write?

DR:

No, the worst thing is when I start to predict how specific readers — even ones, maybe especially ones, I respect — might respond to something I’m trying to do. I was sort of embarrassed by the fact that I started writing some poems in rhyme — in couplets, no less — but I had to let it be what it wanted to be, no matter how unfashionable or uncool it was.

I suppose that there might be an ideal reader in my mind when I write — I’m directing the work outside of myself, certainly — but it’s such a mysterious relationship, I try not to look at it too directly. Editing and assembling is different; when I was in the process of collecting poems into my first book, I thought a lot about the overall structure and I consciously constructed strange, almost occult patterns with a reader — an ideal reader, it would have to be — in mind. But while in the act of writing, it’s death for me to contemplate whether or not others will approve.

One of the most liberating things about writing poetry is that there is no incentive to think commercially. Who are you going to “sell out” to — the three neo-formalists in one corner or the four post-Language academics in the other? Once I accepted that I couldn’t please everybody and that I might not fit in anywhere, I relaxed somewhat. You have to be willing to fail miserably in front of friends and strangers every time you set a line down on paper.

OBT:

What are you working on right now?

DR:

I have a character for a novel, and she keeps poking me in the back with her bony finger, but I am focusing on new poems at the moment. I have a bad habit of working on a million things at once, and I’ve made a commitment to narrow my attention so that I can accomplish more in the long run.

OBT:

Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published?

DR:

Engage as deeply as you can with what you love. I had a professor tell me when I was about 18 years old not to rush into publishing because you might be embarrassed by your early work down the road, and I took that maybe a little too closely to heart. But just as I’m happy I didn’t get that Celtic knot tattoo when I was an undergrad, I’m damn glad some of those erotic love poems to my first boyfriend aren’t part of the public record.

I believe ambition is important, but I think there are more interesting things to strive for than resume fodder. In my experience, if you follow that electrical current that ran through you when you read something that made you want to write in the first place, you’ll be okay. If you’re not all that interested in anything but the idea of being published — well, there are easier ways to get laid, frankly.

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