Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Stephen Collis

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Stephen Collis

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June and July. In this interview, poet Stephen Collis speaks with students Palita Timm and Jessica Glazer.

Hi Mr. Collis!

Our names are Palita Timm and Jessica Glazer. We are grade 12 students at Malvern Collegiate Institute and are both very excited to be able to interview you this year! We are currently taking classes like Politics, Drama, World Issues, Biology, and of course, Writer’s Craft! We hope you have as much fun answering these questions as we did crafting them.

When I did research on your other work outside of writing I found that you are a teacher of contemporary poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University. How do you feel teaching improves your poetry and how do you believe being a published author gives your students the drive to be successful?

Great question! I tend to teach the poetry I am interested in – as a poet. The poetry I love, the poetry I think is successful at what it is trying to achieve, and ultimately the poetry I would like to write like. So teaching is one way I come to a better understanding of how this poetry works. It has become an integral part of my practice as a poet. I think the fact that I am a poet does help my students too – at least, I speak a little more passionately about it, and modelling that passion (that someone could actually get excited about poetry!) I think helps them engage a little more deeply. I also know many of the poets that I teach, so I have inside information to share!

It’s noticeable in some of your poems in your book On the Material that you create indents or spaces between some of your words or fragments of words to seemingly create emphasis or place importance on certain words. What makes you pick those certain words or fragments and how do you think this affects the reader?

When I’m writing, I’m also listening, hearing the words of the poem as they arrive. Sound is very important, but it is always linked to meaning. Sometimes a word arrives already announcing that it’s significant, and I can feel myself “hang” or pause on it as I write it. That comes out formally – as a line break, or as extra spacing, or whatever. But those pauses and gaps in the poem are an intuitive part of how its sound and meaning are being formed in a fairly improvisational moment. They also instruct or remind me how to read the poem when I perform it, slowing down and shaping or emphasizing words for their sound and/or meaning.

The imagery in the book Decomp is fantastic. It sets up and establishes different parts of the book and gives the reader a visual of the setting. Each section of images starts with a wide-angle shot and as the images progress the pictures begin to close in on the decomposing book and the words on the pages. What was the intention behind this?

The intention was to draw the reader into the micro focus, the ground level of decay. We wanted some sense of “location,” ecologically speaking, and also a reminder of the presence of the human being (each section starts with some reference to the human body – hands, a shadow, whatever), because there’s a lot of “artifice” involved. We didn’t want it to seem falsely “natural,” but wanted to remind that human beings were involved – choosing, placing, recording, interacting. Because part of the project intended to trouble the divisions we police between the “human” and the “natural.” We, human beings, invented this distinction. But it’s also artificial and very human to claim to have erased the distinction. We wanted the space between the human, with their books and knowledge, and the ecosystems they study and interact with to be an active, investigative space.

When talking about literature in English classes I feel that the focus is situated mainly on novels and short stories. Because of this, I personally feel closer to novels and put aspects of those novels into my writing. My question is; did you always feel connected to poetry or did you end up stumbled upon and didn’t expect to like? Like a lot of people with their writing, is there a specific poet or work of poetry that influenced you to start writing your own?

I stumbled upon poetry for sure. When I started writing “seriously,” in my early twenties, I thought I wanted to write fiction (and I did). I wrote some poems, but didn’t think it was worth paying much attention to. Then I had to write poetry in a creative writing class in university, for a whole semester. It simply took over. I “came down with poetry,” like you come down with an illness (this is how the American poet Robert Duncan put it, and he was important to me from early on). I just couldn’t stop. I started looking for books of poetry, and I loved the way New Directions paperbacks looked and felt – just the physical books themselves – and you could find them in used bookstores. So I found William Carlos Williams, and Duncan, and Gary Snyder and others who were important influences early on.

You have mainly focused on writing in the poetry area of literature throughout your career as both an author and a teacher. Do you think that you would ever write in a different genre of literature ever? What would you like to experiment with and how do you think it would differ from your poetry?

Well, carrying on from the last question – I still write fiction – at least, I’ve come back to it. I published a novel, The Red Album, last year, and I’m slowly starting a new one. But I’m writing poetry still too. So I guess I’m going to be busy. Fiction is different, and not different. I engage with a lot of the same ideas and topics, but fiction allows you to draw them out a little further, fill in more blanks, and express yourself a little more explicitly. In poetry, you are always compressing. So fiction feels, to me, a little like an unzipped file.

The topics of your poems appear to draw from not only personal experience but also from world issues. For example, your poem “The History of Plastic” in the book On the Material talks about such problems such as the Great Pacific Garbage patch, whereas when you flip to another poem in the book like “The End of Light,” it seems like you’re writing about much more personal things. How do you balance out the two and decide what to write about?

This is also a great question, and really the heart of the matter to me. I write poetry as a way of exploring and investigating some issue in the world – a historical/political problem, a place, landscape, or some sort of ecological or geophysical subject, whatever. The disappearance of honeybees. Plastic. But poetry is the way I explore the world, try to understand it, and respond to it. It’s not about “self-expression,” at least not at the start, it’s about world-expression, about seeing what’s “out there.” So I start with research – reading and traveling. I take notes, and I do things with those notes and the books I’m reading – making collages, lists, poems that are lists, etc. But usually somewhere along the process something more “personal” comes along too. We can’t separate ourselves from the world, or from ourselves. Everything floods together. So “I” become a part of what I’m investigating. On the Material was probably my most “personal” book, because it dealt in part with my sister’s death (from cancer). But the focus is still often on how we have made the world sick, and then in turn made ourselves sick. Even in dealing with my sister’s death, the only way I could was through her books – books she had given me, and books I took from her house before and after a fire. “The End of Flight” was one of those experiences you couldn’t help but write about: a dead eagle fell into my yard, right in front of me. But that became symptomatic of wider things too – even if just the old idea of being sent a “sign,” and having a “mission” or “commission” to write.

Stephen Collis is a poet and professor of contemporary literature at Simon Fraser University. His many books of poetry include The Commons (Talon Books 2008), On the Material (Talon Books 2010—awarded the BC Book Prize for Poetry), and To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013). He has also written two books of criticism and a novel, The Red Album (BookThug 2013). His collection of essays on the Occupy movement, Dispatches from the Occupation (Talon Books 2012), is a philosophical meditation on activist tactics, social movements, and change. In September 2013 Coach House Books published DECOMP, a collaborative photo-essay and long poem written with Jordan Scott.

Born and raised in the white wilderness of Canada, the lonely bear Jess wanders aimlessly looking for the path under her feet. Shuffling the snow around her, she stops and sees a bakery and immediately knows that this is where her heart truly lies; she will attend Le Cordon Bleu chef school in order to become a pastry artist. The most important thing to this specific type of bear is friends and family; she will do absolutely anything to protect them from harm. She loves TV, movies and books, often spending hours looking at their images. Her favourite TV show to watch is Supernatural because she loves the thrill and excitement involved.

Palita Timm was born in a concrete jungle or a concrete mass surrounded by jungle, in Thailand. Her parents decided to bring her along with them to the great north called Canada where Palita has embraced the seasonal weather and the great wilderness that is Toronto. Animals were her brothers and sisters growing up (and remain to be) since she was an only child. She is a well-travelled girl thanks to her parents, but wants to explore every corner of the universe. There seems to be a great fog over her future, but she’s only seventeen so I think she’s got some time.

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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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