Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Carving Out New Territory: Robert Earl Stewart Discusses Campfire Radio Rhapsody

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Carving Out New Territory: Robert Earl Stewart Discusses Campfire Radio Rhapsody

In this interview, I talk to Robert Earl Stewart (Something Burned Along the Southern Border) about his follow-up collection Campfire Radio Rhapsody. Stewart is also gracious to let me include one of my favourite poems from the last collection and offers a backstory for the poem as well as a description of how he went about writing it.

Surreal but also personable; dark but also always wise and humane, Stewart is an important voice.

Enjoy.

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JL: Thanks for doing this interview, Robert.

So it's been two or three years since Something Burned Along the Southern Border and you're on the cusp of releasing a follow-up Campfire Radio Rhapsody. Can you tell us a little about the time that's elapsed since the release of your debut until now? How was writing the second book different than the first -- or was it? Did you feel the material changing in any conspicuous way? Did the writing process feel different at all?

RES: My editor Stuart Ross sent me an email a during the editing process in which he said he could tell how much trauma and pain went into this book. His comment gave me something to think about because the time between Something Burned Along the Southern Border and Campfire Radio Rhapsody (about 18 months) has been very peaceful and productive. Which is not to say that Stuart is wrong. CRR is definitely a much darker collection than its predecessor.

That's what makes the title funny, to me at least. It's a bit of misdirection. There's a very grim, paranoid violence to the book. It's tempered with humour, but, admittedly, even that comes across as very dark and twisted. And apparently I am the person least aware of this happening in my writing, and the least able to give you any indication as to why this is. I definitely wasn't aware of my writing changing in any conspicuous way. The actual writing was seamless. I never stopped writing between SBATSB and CRR. I know some writers need to take time out after one book to retool and rethink their next project; find a new theme or cause. I can't plan that far ahead. I need more mystery to what I'm doing than that would allow.

JL: At what point do you start thinking of the book as a book -- that is, as an entity with some sort of larger unifying consciousness ordering the poems, changing the lines to accommodate grander designs (if you do such a thing) and so forth? Is it pretty late in the process? Do you leave that up to Stuart?

RES: I started thinking of the book as a book the day Stuart Ross called me and said Mansfield Press wanted to do my second book--18 months after the first book. That was October 2010, so it's been a very abbreviated schedule. Up until that point, I'd been thinking of Campfire Radio Rhapsody as a file on my computer called "Poetry." It's unifying consciousness is, in my opinion, thematic. But, again, I'm often the least qualified person to comment on what the book is about, though I'm pretty into line breaks--I pay a lot of attention to that, but it's on a poem-by-poem basis. I've always approached ordering the poems in a book the same way I approach making a mixed tape or writing up a set list for a musical performance, or the poems I'll read at a reading. Do you want to start heavy? Slow? Lull the audience a bit, then gut them? Then make them laugh, make them wonder, then gut them again? All things to consider.

JL: I was thinking of several writers as I was reading SBATSB. I was thinking of David Berman's sort of conversational profundity and his ability to include seamlessly include artefacts of popular culture and Tony Hoagland's eye for the epiphanic ending and for giving us just this very decent, humane voice.

I'm wondering what writers you think of when you think of your own "style" or if you even think of things in this way. Do you see your work as linking in with any poetic traditions, or do you try to avoid thinking of what you're doing in those terms?

And, finally, were there any writers that helped (or facilitated) with your transition into the darker territory between the first and second book? Did you find that your reading changed at all in between the first and second book?

RES: Well, I'm definitely a fan of David Berman and Tony Hoagland. A few lines from a David Berman poem, "Now II," served as the epigraph for SBATSB. And I'm definitely a fan of the big ending. A few people have commented on that--I really don't know of any other way to end a poem other than, maybe, sarcastically? I sometimes get sick of feeling that every poem has to work up to a big ending, but in the end, it almost always works out that way.

Some shorter pieces in the new book are a little more serene, but the big epiphanic endings are definitely there. When I read Albert Goldbarth's poetry, I found an affinity there. And I've been told there's an echo of Philip Levine (who I just learned is a Detroiter), though I haven't read any of his stuff. Admittedly, I'm not a great *student* of poetry. I really come from a fiction-based literary education. So, my sense of where I sit amidst styles and traditions is not that well informed. I can't say what I was reading *changed* either. Well, maybe that's not true. I found that I could read and enjoy John Ashbery and I started reading and enjoying some plotless fiction--Jeremy M Davies' Rose Alley; How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira... But that stuff's not really that much of a stretch from the stranger moments of Pynchon, Bolano, Gaddis and David Foster Wallace. Looking over my reading list for the past 18 months (my wife insists that this is an endearing quality) I can say that the only book of poetry that really captivated me and did something visceral to me was The Selected Larry Levis.

JL: Maybe you could plot for us a little your transition into poetry from fiction? I'm curious because I think this is a common kind of swerving that lets people come to poetry, usually at a later time in their artistic development. I can definitely see the narrative quality in your work.

As a side question, are there Canadian writers that you think cover the same sort of poetic territory that you do? I was thinking maybe Jason Heroux, Peter Norman, or David Donnell. Several people on my openbook list too -- Norman is there, but Thran and Rogers for sure. Do you feel there's a space carved out for you in Canada?

RES: There wasn't a direct link between fiction and poetry on the reading side. In August 2004, I wrote my first poem since undergraduate creative writing in 1993 (that poems is "The History of Baseball" in Something Burned Along the Southern Border). I think it's safe to say I hadn't read a single poem outside of an academic setting in that period. I was reading fiction. In particular contemporary American fiction: Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, Jeffrey Eugenides, A.M. Homes, Rick Moody, Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo--throw in some British stuff like Ian McEwan, Margaret Drabble, J.G. Ballard, my Thomas Hardy phase. What brought me to poetry was rock and roll. I was and remain a big Silver Jews fan. David Berman was the lead singer/guitarist of the Silver Jews and I heard he had a book of poetry out. I liked reading his lyrics in liner notes, so I ordered the book. It arrived and sat on the shelf for about four years. Then in Aug. 2004 I read it. And on the day I read it, I wrote "The History of Baseball." And I saw that Billy Collins and James Tate gave Berman nice jacket blurbs. So I read their stuff, and it just went on from there.

As far as covering the same poetic territory goes... Jason Heroux and I might be covering the same stuff, but I don't think we could be doing it any more differently. I love Jason Heroux's stuff. His poem "Talking About the War" is amazing. And I've read both versions of Good Evening, Central Laundromat. There's a very cool economy to all his work. That kind of economy doesn't come naturally to me. As far as space being carved out--no. I don't think so. Mostly because I think you have to carve your own space and I've only really begun carving.

JL: I wanted to include the fabulous poem "Love, Pineapple" from SBATSB and maybe you could let readers know how you went about writing it. What kind of form are you using here? What was the progression of the poem -- did you have it on first try or did it take some revision? I detect an interesting religious connotation towards the end "My God, my knife, so lonely." There's also this sense in which the knife-holder wields a kind of transcendental power throughout (i.e. "chopping up twighlight"). I may be reading too closely, but maybe you could just take us through the process of how you wrote it and how you see it now.

Love, Pineapple

I'm chopping pineapples at dusk, alone.
Alone. Chopping. Dusk. Pineapples. A knife.
Pineapples falling to pieces in the night.
In the twilght, a knife, chopping.
I'm alone. So desperately alone with this fucking pineapple.
Chopping, chopping, chopping--a little dicing in the dusk--
and putting bits of pineapple in a bowl:
a lonely little bowl of nighttime pineapple.
I'm knifing this thing to nighttime.
I'm dusky and chopped up in this bowl of loneliness.
I'm lonely and covered in pineapple juice,
chopping up the twilight into digestible fruit-salad-sized-choppings.
At dusk. My God, this pineapple.
My God, my knife so lonely.

RES: This poem gets a lot of attention and its origins are a lot less mysterious than you might think. A lot of people think I need a hug after that poem. Yet, they laugh pretty hard while I'm reading it. Anyway, it's a sonnet, roughly. It was written in one of Stuart Ross's infamous all-day Poetry Boot Camps. The experiment was this: Write a single line of about 10 syllables. After that, you have to write that line 13 more times, 13 different ways. When you're done: sonnet. I travelled to Toronto for the Boot Camp and I think I woke up on Paul Vermeersch's couch that morning with a hankering for fruit salad. That pineapple was on the brain. And from "I'm chopping pineapples at dusk, alone," came this hilariously depressing poem.

Maybe it's about the trappings of self-pity; the strange comforts of depression (you know: "I can always go on a rampage. That'll brighten things up."). Maybe the pineapple takes the place of that rampage? The knife is obviously pretty ominous... The reference to God isn't religious as much as it is a spiritual plea, a prayer out of exhaustion and pineapple juice. I just had to keep riffing on one line, so it got strange pretty fast. The title has an interesting story behind it: When I was in high school some friends had this all-night party and when people started to pass out in various places around the house, we took this pineapple from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table and placed it next to the passed out people and took their picture. Then, we would write a note that would say something to the effect of "Thank you for being such a tender lover... Love, Pineapple," and we would leave that next to the person so they would find it when they woke up. Have I hacked all of the transcendence out of it?

JL: No, quite the opposite. Hearing about this stuff makes the poem more interesting. There's this saying in psychology that studying why something is funny takes the funny out of it. I think that isn't true, though I understand why some people think it. But the same applies to poetry, too -- that hearing about the seemingly mundane experiences behind a poem demystifies it or something. But knowing that that experience stayed with you and generated this unique content (different, but no doubt related) is a way of opening the poem up more, I think.

Though I'm curious -- does it surprise you what poems get the most attention from your book?

As a final question, too, and bringing this back to the new book, what do you think will surprise readers of the new book most? Let's say those who have read SBATSB and have come to love your unique style. Is it the darker turn? The kind of forms you're using? The length of the poems? Or might it be something else?

RES: Yes, I'm familiar with that funny-erasure theory. I think there's some validity to it, though I think it really applies to jokes. Jokes really need to be funny in the moment; there's a real urgency to them. A lot of what makes "Love, Pineapple" funny is the delivery when it's read for an audience. And yes, for me, the funniest thing about that poem is that as the most popular and talked about poem in SBATSB, it's really one the most superficial. It was written in one shot as a workshop exercise. But, like they say about a lot of humour: it comes from very dark places and pain.

Given what we've been discussing, I think what readers will find most surprising about CRR is something I haven't even considered or recognized about the book yet. Yes, it's darker and more disturbing. Some of the shortest poems I've written are in it. But the longest poem I've ever written is also in it, as is more Windsor-Detroit history and ephemera. But readers always surprise me with what they find. It's one of the things I like most about writing. It was only after SBATSB came out that someone mentioned how often boats and insects appeared in it, and it had never occurred to me. I got really into shortwave numbers stations for the new book, so that might open a whole bunch of space for people. It may also scare the daylights out of them.

JL: Well Robert, I for one can't wait. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

RES: Thank you, Jeff.

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.

Jeff Latosik

Jeff Latosik’s first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press), was published in Spring 2010.

Go to Jeff Latosik’s Author Page