Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poetry in Windsor: Melanie Janisse Interviews Robert Earl Stewart

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Poetry in Windsor: Melanie Janisse Interviews Robert Earl Stewart

By Melanie Janisse

My recent trip to Windsor was memorable. My hometown greeted me with twinkling holiday lights, for sale signs dotting the recession-hit town, a friend's artist-run shop "Made in Windsor" bringing me hope and a snowy night spent in a downtown café talking to fellow poet Robert Earl Stewart.

Melanie Janisse:

Tell me about this epic book of poems, Something Burned Along the Southern Border.

Robert Earl Stewart:

The book is a collection in the purest sense of the term “collection.” It covers a wide span of writing — from the earliest poems I wrote, to stuff that was written during the early stages of the editing process. It’s rangy, long, but I like long. At heart, I’m a maximalist.


I know you are a journalist and a fiction writer. Where do the poems come in? How did poetry become your genre?


I started writing poetry on Aug. 8, 2004 — my oldest boy’s second birthday. Before that, I’d been working on fiction for several years — a bunch of short stories (some of them still in progress) and a novel that I started in 2001 that is very much still in progress, but I wasn’t really getting any results with my fiction. Publication in a couple places — one a very disreputable club scene/soft core porn magazine where the editor chose to just truncate my story when the page ended — but nothing I was proud of; nothing that I would consider a serious publishing credit, or would help get my work in front of the right audience.

So, on my son’s second birthday, I was sitting in our backyard pool reading, watching my wife teach our son how to hit a ball off a tee, and when I saw that my wife, Jennifer, batted left, I was blown away. And in the very literal sense of the word inspiration, this poem was just kind of breathed into me. It’s called “The History of Baseball” and it was published a few months later in a journal out of Texas called Blank Magazine.


How did you hook up with Mansfield Press?


I did a reading at the Art Bar reading series at Clinton’s Tavern in Toronto in Aug. 2008. Stuart Ross, whom I’d met before at a few book launches, came out to see me read. After the reading, he came up to me and asked how much material I had. I told him I had more than a book-length manuscript’s worth, and he said "When you get back to Windsor, put it in an envelope and send it to me." Three months later, I got the call that Mansfield wanted to do my book.


Talk to me about this fascinating title. Is it a reference to your roots in Windsor?


Through the writing, the book had a different working title: Flicker Rate. I think changing the title was Stuart Ross’s first editorial suggestion. And, of course, it was a good suggestion. Both Stuart and Paul Vermeersch – a great friend and poet, and someone who was instrumental in helping me get this thing into the right hands — thought the line “like something burned along its southern border” from the poem “Night’s Rust” really stuck out. We changed it up a bit, and it became Something Burned Along the Southern Border.

The title actually has nothing to do with Windsor. I was in Toronto for a book launch in October 2008 and was supposed to be staying at a friends place. Plans fell through, and I was left in Toronto with nowhere to stay. I had to be in London, Ont., the next day to meet some people on unrelated business, and I didn’t want to drive all the way home to Windsor in the dead of night, only to turn around drive two hours back to London in the morning. So I was driving aimlessly around Toronto when I decided to drive to Guelph and find a place to stay so I could check out The Bookshelf — which is an awesome book store where my wife and I used to spend entire days when she was a student at Guelph in the mid-90s — the next morning. So I pulled into Guelph around 1 a.m. and got a room at the Travelodge downtown, and when I walked into the room, I realized it was the first time in my life I’d ever stayed in a hotel all by myself. It was a very strange feeling — I felt oddly dirty and depraved, like I was doing something wrong because my wife thought I was spending the night with a friend in Toronto and here I was in a Travelodge in Guelph. It was like I’d fallen off the grid. The worse thing that happened that night was I ate pretty much a whole pizza and watched the hockey highlights in my underwear. And then I had the most restless and tormented sleep, and I had this freaked-out dream about the mirror in the hotel room bathroom, and when I woke up in the morning, I went in there and looked at it and noticed it was all burned looking along the bottom, and when I looked at it up close, I saw the mirror backing was flaking off along the bottom edge. That’s what the title refers to.


You have a great way of mixing sadness with humor. Could you talk a little about this creative choice?


The humour comes out of my firm belief that poetry is foremost, a form of entertainment. I like funny poetry. I write funny poetry. And, like most funny material, it’s tinged with sadness, despair, desperation, all those dark things. A poem like “Love, Pineapple” for example, is very bleak, but I think the humour really comes out in the delivery at a reading. I enjoy doing readings, and I try to read the funnier stuff at the readings, but maybe one day I’ll come out and hit them with the “Flicker Rate” stuff, just to see what happens. I know my Mom would have liked the funny stuff, but she liked sad, old movies, too.


What is it like working as a poet in Windsor?


Well, Windsor and Essex County together make up a very strange place. It’s home. I love it. I’ve worked extensively out in the county as a newspaper reporter and photographer, for the better part of a decade. Windsor’s got about 220,000 people. It’s considered a big Canadian city. On one side of the Windsor, you’ve got a five million person American metropolis in Detroit; on the other, the flattest and most southern extremes of mainland Canada. That tends to have an effect on a young writer.

The other thing is that there’s not a very big arts culture or scene in Windsor (it’s predominantly middle- to upper-middle-class blue collar, which is a strange combination. It’s safe to say there’s not a big poetry-buying demographic here). But I think this lack of a community holds especially true for the writers. I only know a handful of other writers in Windsor. I’m talking about three or four people — serious writers of poetry and fiction. And for the most part, we pretty much stick to ourselves. I think there’s a larger community of people who like to sit around talking about being writers than there are actual writers. I know this, because I used to be one of those people. But then I got serious about what I’m doing and I don’t have the time, or the energy, to sit around and just talk about it anymore. I’m usually at home writing. And I’m not trying to portray myself as some lone wolf "man-of-action" here. I like sitting in cafés and talking and reading and writing in my Moleskine with a fountain pen as much as the next poet, but again, when I got serious about writing, I got serious about a lot of other things, too — like family, and work. I’m not going to be at peace with my writing unless I’m at peace with those other things. Oddly enough, though, I also think indolence is a very important part of writing. Napping, for me, is extremely important. I love a good nap. I do some of my best thinking just before a nap.

I’ve been instructing the creative writing workshop at Mackenzie Hall as part of the City of Windsor’s Parks & Recreation programming for about three years now, too. It has helped me plug into a bit more of a community, but I have more writer friends in Toronto than I do in Windsor.


Tell me about some of your influences.


I studied American literature in school. I did my M.A. at McGill on David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo and David Lynch. I’ve always identified more with American writers than Canadian. But, as far as poetry influences, poets I admire: Albert Goldbarth, David Berman, Michael Ondaatje, Stuart Ross, Paul Vermeersch, Billy Collins (I know, but I love me some Collins), James Tate, Tony Hoagland, Ken Babstock, D. Nurkse
Christian Hawkey and Lucia Perillo.

In term of fiction I really love: Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Steven Millhauser, David Schickler, Mordecai Richler,Vincent Lam, Haruki Murakami, Thomas Hardy, Roald Dahl, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Lee Henderson and William Gaddis.

* * * *

Bob and I finished the snowy night with a small riff of a poem. And then each headed off into our own night vision of a shared hometown.

The Interview Poem

Robert Earl Stewart and Melanie Janisse

I think those men were listening to us.
The bricks of our city like broken teeth
The poets of our city like broken records
There were whispers, hands winding around cups
the border a plaything, an idiom catapult,
the semi-permeable membrane of then/now.
I imagine the bustling Detroit of my mothers youth, twinkling lights. Foot traffic.
Two lost poets huddled around an Iphone, wondering where to begin.

One confessing to a disappearance from the grid outside of Guelph.

One to the journey of Inanna, unpeeling her royal regalia, descending into the underworld.

They used to have an amazing pastry case here, before they moved.
Fuck it. Let us eat seven cakes. Seven cakes from an uglier case.
(I think the men are listening to us.)

The Launch:

Robert Earl Stewart will read from Something Burned Along the Southern Border at the Mansfield Press Windsor Launch Party on Wednesday, January 27 at 7:00 p.m. at Milk Coffee Bar, 68 University Ave. W., Windsor. See the Mansfield Press events listings for details.

Robert Earl Stewart was born in Windsor, Ontario, in 1974. He graduated from the University of Windsor and has an M.A. in English from McGill University. His poetry has appeared in journals in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain, including Monday Night, nthposition, Iota, Magma, Rampike, The Moosehead Anthology X and This MagazineSomething Burned Along the Southern Border, was published by Mansfiled Press in Nov. 2009.

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University and Emily Carr. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and Oh Magazine. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) will be available in November, 2008.

Read Open Book's Ten Questions with Melanie Janisse.

For more information about Something Burned Along the Southern Border please visit the Mansfield Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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