Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT PRIEST

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I decided to interview well-loved poet, songwriter and playwright Robert Priest because not only is he one of the accessible voices of his generation, but he has been a positive influence on so many young people. Robert's new book, Reading the Bible Backwards shows us how being human involes a willingness to think, love and live in every direction.

Q Linda.

Robert, I found from the caption beneath the back of head book portrait on your new book, Reading The Bible Backwards, that you studied mathematics at university. How did you envolve from math to poetry, or was that devolution?

A Robert

they are actually directly connected. we were studying vectors in math class in high school and I think the math teacher in explaining what a vector is is said "we are all vectors" and for some reason I tranced into some follow-up "we are all's." I think I may have written them down in my math book. "we are all divisible by one" "we are all common denominators" stuff like that. previous to that I had written poetry but it was all iambic rhyming type poetry. this was the first fragment of something that was a poem in a more modern format. it was only three or four lines but it stayed with me and excited the hell out of me. in my new book reading the Bible backwords the anchoring image and architecture was a multidimensional graph. in fact the graph was made of vectors so that I could indicate directionality. but I was also very conscious of the fact that a basic x y axis looks just like a cross. i'm still doing the mathnawi.

Q Linda

As a quote troubadour quote who travels from school to school with his guitar on his back, do you see yourself as a traditional bringer of news? How important is it that kids get the gospel of Robert in poetry and music?

A Robert

it's important to me that I get my poems and songs out there so that people can experience them. I'm sure there is ego in that but it also seems like a logical follow up to actually writing this stuff. poetry wants to reach people. I believe in the work and I believe I have a particular thing that I do that is a good ingredient in the cultural milieu so I feel it is my responsibility to put some effort into holding it forth. I do go into schools with my guitar but I also did about 10 years in rock bands screaming in bars. that took so much energy. it was like being a match in a wind tunnel. but I haven't been taking the guitar around this year because I ruined my rotator cuff through too much combination typing/playing. I feel it would be stupid and disloyal to my songs just to let them moulder away in a drawer unsung unheard, so I'm happy to have the intranet as a way of a least dropping them into the stream.

Q Linda

If you could make up a new golden rule, what would it be? Is that a thread we can follow (backwards) through your oeuvre?

A Robert

my wish for a poetry is that it be active and present in the culture. I believe we are soul machines and that we didn't get the instruction manual so we don't quite know what it is we really do well. we often limit ourselves by trying to be or do things that others tell us we should do. sometimes it take years to write out your allegiances and false expectations and influences. if eventually you can get to whatever it is you actually do well (there's probably been little threads and traces of it through every stage of your existence) then you are blessed and a blessing too.

Q Linda.

You are a family man. Has the poet's life been a difficult one for you? "The government has not been able to stop it." What would you say to our government if you were presenting a petition for poets?

A Robert

I really can't cry too much about the difficulty of the poet's life. I am fortunate enough to live in a rich country and I've never gone a day without food or adequate shelter or access to health care. also the culture is free enough that I've been able to say what I want without much threat of physical violence or incarceration. the worst of it really is just that sense that there is no real calibration in the art. there is no absolute inch to tell you how poetically tall you really might be. but the good part of it is that it always throws you back on your own estimation of the efficacy of your art. what I mean is even if you get a big award it doesn't necessarily mean that you're a good writer -- and everybody knows that. sometimes I just wish there were some kind of real scale so we could all get on it and find out who is heavily or not. but all of that's trifle.

Q Linda

How is love, in the public and private sense, "giving symmetry something to arrange itself around?"

A Robert

that is one of the many things I do not know. a lot of time when I write it's like I just topple the first domino. I took a word or phrase and after that it's all chain reaction. I trick the language into writing the poems. it really doesn't require much wisdom. just a bit of luck and some vandalism.

Q Linda

How do we "speak only to subvert meaning?" Is this also true of poetry?

A Robert

yes another of the many things I don't know but have lots to say about. my theory is that humans were all once telepaths and we only developed language in order to hide our thoughts from others. then due to natural selection the people who couldn't hide their thoughts were killed off by those who were not thrilled with their honesty. and so we bred the telepathy out of us mostly. lots of things are true of poetry. but one truth is that poetry subverts language or tricks language as I said earlier.

Q Linda

If you could ask yourself a question, what would it be?

A Robert

well there is one singular koan and that we all ask each other all the time. I would ask myself this: "how are you?"

Q Linda

Do you have any advice for young poets?

A Robert

don't give a good message a bad name.

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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Linda Rogers

Linda Rogers is the author of the novels Say My Name (Ekstasis Editions, 2000), Friday Water (Cormorant Books, 2003) and The Empress Letters (Cormorant Books, 2007). She has also published several collections of poetry, including Love in the Rainforest (Exile Editions, 1996), Heaven Cake (Sono Nis Press, 1997), The Saning (Sono Nis Press, 1999) and The Bursting Test (Guernica Editions, 2002).

Go to Linda Rogers’s Author Page