Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

“I am Not Not Romantic,” an Interview with Andy McGuire

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“I am Not Not Romantic,” an Interview with Andy McGuire

In a 2011 interview with Guernica Magazine, poet Timothy Donnelly, in response to a question about the influences he had just named (Keats and Shelley) and whether he considered his work in the tradition of the Romantics, replied that he though of himself as a “post-romantic.” If we take Donnelly’s work as an example of what post-romanticism might be, then this is a poetry where the vehicle is the sound and image, is pleasure and liberation, but also something darker as well, something heart broken, watching from the shadows. And if we accept “post-romantic” as a genre, then there’s no better place to put Andy McGuire’s debut poetry collection, Country Club. Setting itself in Florida heat and Ontario chill, Country Club is a humorous reconsideration of what makes light verse light and what romance can feel like. The poems present themselves as structured, but their formalism isn’t buttoned up to the collar and wearing a tie. These poems are dressed for their own internal island time, one that encourages the reader to savour the contents and have fun with them at a Sunday’s pace.

James Lindsay: Much of Country Club takes place in Florida. Why Florida?

Andy McGuire: Because it had me at hello when I lived there a few winters ago. Because it was Florida I was looking for. Something about the brutally blue sky put the flames in my fire. Because in Florida they take their leisure with a sense of achievement. Because there you find wildly different conjugations of nature. Because A Florida man was born in Florida. (The reigning A Florida man hurled an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window—because why not?) Because I felt an estranging kinship with the place. Surely the first person to smile in a photograph did so in Florida. Because Florida is basically a bouncy castle for adults. Because guilty pleasure minus the guilt is worth its weight in sunscreen. I had a blast living there. Mostly because there was poetry in them palms.

JL: How important is location to your poems? I ask because Country Club feels site specific, so much rich greenery, beaches and warm weather. Are your newer poems as influenced by environment?

AM: Location never really influenced my writing before Country Club. For some reason, the Spanish Colonial strip malls, the golf course villas and swamps of southern Florida became besties with my psyche. I made certain aesthetic choices in my poems to try and reflect life in the heart of the Simulacra State. But the nearby Everglades loomed large, dark and lovely. It all amounted to a delicious sense of mediated menace. I wanted that feeling of feral composure to creep through Country Club. As a whole, the collection interleaves the southern Florida landscape with my native Ontario. Travel has also influenced my work as of late. I just got back from The Bookworm International Literary Festival in China< . Talk about a doozy of a foreign landscape. The rate of metabolism has been glacial. Some of my newer poems have been influenced by the forces, phenomena and culture of the site of composition. Others take place in fully invented landscapes. A few new poems are about real places I’ve never been: the Mojave Desert, The Great Blue Hole. A poem is a form of armchair travel, too.

JL: You're also a songwriter. How does writing song lyrics different than writing poetry? Not just technically, but in terms of theme and rythm.

AM: The main difference is melody. Writing a poem does not require a piano or guitar. Theme is not something I think about while writing a song or a poem.

JL: I guess what I'm asking then is how does melody change your writing? For you, is writing a song just like writing a poem but with music?

AM: What interests me most are the things you can do with songwriting that seem non-transferable to poetry. The way you can make a person sad with a single strum of a minor chord. How do you do that in a poem? Tone might be the closest equivalent to melody in poetry. Old country songs are great because the most devastating lyrics are often set to the sunniest chords. Hank Williams sings Your cheatin' heart/ will pine some day/ and crave the love/ you threw away in C fucking major! Counterpoint is the point. A nice day for a dark night of the soul. I feel at home in that tonal register. I did a reading recently where people wept and laughed during the same poem. For my money, that right there is the richest literary prize there is. Maybe my songs and poems are more closely related than I thought or want them to be. Common denominators include rhyme, repetition, bleak humour and sunny malaise. So the answer to the second part of your question is yes, maybe. Comparing my own modes of composition makes my cerebrum hangry.

JL: On the page, the poems in Country Club definitely share that play between being sunny and sad, but what about readings? Is there a difference between making people laugh and cry at the same poem when they read it on their own versus having it read to them? Is there a preformative aspect when you read, something in the voice, or do you try to let the poems themselves to the work?

AM: I hold my poems accountable to a standard of performance during the writing process. It's probably not hard to hear how Frederick Seidel has influenced my work in that sense. I also read poems in progress aloud. Because of the strong performative element embedded in my compositional process, I think that reading for an audience requires of me a different sort of performance. Delivery might be the word. Listening to readers like Jeramy Dodds, Timothy Donnelly, Alexandra Oliver and Karen Solie has made me a better reader of my own work. They know how to light up the sheet music. Like actors working in the service of a script. The whole point is to Frankenstein that creature on the page to life.

JL: There's a sweet romance that runs through Country Club that stays light and playful, like the beginning of a relationship. Do you have romantic influences? Do you consider yourself a romantic?

AM: Some of my favourite lines from the last (ever, as it stands) Silver Jews record are, I lived with my true love and she lived with me/ ‘Romance is the douche of the bourgeoisie’/ was the very first thing she imparted to me. In a negative review someone actually accused David Berman (frontman and songwriter) of being a poor economist. Hilarious. I am not not romantic. Most of my influences tend toward palatial depression, brutal incompetence and a firm suspicion of the vanity of all initiative. I am under the influence of a regime of intake that makes it hard for my inner Romeo to build muscle mass. That being said, I find romance to be an excellent delivery system for the horse pill of dread that the average afternoon administers. Is pragmatic romance a thing? At the risk of sounding too precious, in lots of ways Country Club felt like the beginning of a relationship. With Florida. With publication. With my own bewildered exuberance. All I know is that my love was upgraded to economy. Paul Goodman said that there is no sex without love or its refusal. When love is behind the wheel in my work its right of refusal is usually chaperoning in shotgun. I think, or in the very least hope, that the poems of Country Club want it both ways and fall in lust regardless.

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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.

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James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

You can write to James throughout April at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page