Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

rob mclennan's 12 or 20 questions, with Matthew Remski

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Matthew Remski

In rob mclennan's latest 12 or 20 Questions interview, Matthew Remski talks about writing fiction and poetry, public readings, the fragrance of ghee and more. Congratulations to Matthew on being longlisted for the ReLit Awards for his poetry collection, syrinx and systole (Quattro Books)!

1. How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

organon (1994) blew apart my language, and my heart, mainly because it was the product of close mentorship by friends of mine: christian bök and darren wershler. within a few months, they’d helped me find a current of self-reflexive lyricism that not only addressed my personal gravities, but also the phenomenology of writing itself. somehow, through that project, writing became personal, political, transhistorical, and interdisciplinary. i lost much of the burden of the "I," and started to feel the pulse of plurality. the organ sat at the center, as a metaphor for the multi-vocal.

that revelation has remained pretty stable ever since. i’m still exploring it. in a lonelier fashion, of course — all of us have grown up and dispersed far and wide. we have families and jobs. but there is a cord back to the language that jostled us. or a chord.

2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

it was about focus, and the crystallization of identity into something that finally resembled me. i remember beginning to write poems late at night, gazing at blank notepaper, afraid to make a mark, sleeping on my desk with crickets out the window, waking up to see the sweat on the page, my mark. it had to be mine. i had to carve out something that was mine. and the smallest canvas was the simplest, boldest, most intense. had i grown up in japan it would have been brushwork. but i had to make a mark, however small, that reflected back to me some kind of proof i existed.

3. How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

can’t answer, really, because i don’t ever stop. projects or sequences emerge over time. occasionally i have a strong vision, and i get ripping on it immediately. i don’t even know what a first draft is anymore, what with this delete button and copy and paste technology.

4. Where does fiction or a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

poetry begins from a trance state between four and six in the morning. i feel the book coming on like a season. i haven’t written fiction in 12 years. i might yet. i remember that fiction came from pure rage. i literally couldn’t believe the horror of human narratives, so i had to manipulate them for sanity and some stab at freedom.

5. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

i do, because poetry must retain its oral culture to remain poetry. and i don’t mean standing and reading off the page, as if to say “well, here’s what my book contains” [shrug]. i mean reading, which is embodied in some way. a reading says: i am here and these are my marks on the world, and this is how my body feels when making these marks. and then the mirror neurons of the listeners start firing, and the poem beneath the poem starts to arc.

6 . Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

i’m always trying to answer what the fuck are we to do with this burden of consciousness, which, like alphabetic writing, is only about 4000 years old, max: about 0.00875 percent of the lifespan of the planet. we think introspection is ageless, but it is painful precisely because it is new. we are neurological infants, gazing inwards at an imploding star.

current questions? how about ecology? i just attended six readings that celebrated the end of the scream. i listened to about thirty excellent writers expose themselves. only two wrote directly about ecology. angela rawlings did a sound-piece mantra from “environment canada” and darren wershler read from christian’s “xenotext” about a bacterium that will survive us all. are we that traumatized, that only two of thirty excellent writers can address the fact that the world is on fire?

7. What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

shaman. not the new-age ponce-shaman who leads retreats to costa rica. but the person who stands at the threshold of anything and translates some kind of coherence into being. the interdisciplinarian. the therapist who runs a theatre company. the poet who gets arrested at g20. somebody reading dylan thomas in a hospice. someone who sees through ideologies — especially the ideologies of writing.

8. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

never really done it. many would say i should. but — i do collaborate with my dear friend scott petrie on a yoga philosophy project called yoga 2.0. it’s the best thing I’ve ever done: to relieve myself of the burden of authorship.

9 . What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

in 1993, lynn crosbie bought me coffee at the old dooney’s in the annex before she went on my radio show at CIUT. she took a long drag on an elegant cigarette and said: “the real work happens when you’re doing nothing.”

ten years later i was despondent and on the edge of mental collapse. my wife looked at me and said: “lie down and look at the sky.”

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

i don’t really see them as genres or different skills, though perhaps that just means i’m not well-enough-studied. it’s usually different voices and moods, usually governed by time-of-day.

11. What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

i write from 5 to 9 a.m. after that, i can edit, do non-fiction, polish up a blog piece, but the creation trance is broken. probably because the day has started for most of the humans around me. the busy-ness is contagious. plus i have to make my cash living.

12. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

my writing only gets stalled by biology or existential crisis. these are inspiring, so i don’t turn anywhere. to keep writing would be dissociative.

13. What fragrance reminds you of home?

making ghee. which home? not sure.

14. David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

nature and science crack my metaphysics most pleasurably.

15. What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

julian jaynes: origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. burton’s anatomy of melancholy. kristeva. early ondaatje. bok. lacan, baudrillard. doctorow (cory too). faulkner. vollmann, pynchon. cormac mccarthy, especially blood meridian. sartre, de beauvoir, jarry, and most important: maurice merleau-ponty.

16. What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

learn to fully enjoy and utilize my anxiety.

17. If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

haven’t a clue. maybe because i write more than i’m a writer. i’m a therapist and consultant and teacher as well, and i’ve had a lot of jobs and played many roles. it’s all food to me.

18. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

it was the most compressed medium that i could find for examining my interiority. it allowed me to meditate. as i mentioned above, it afforded my first self-possession, my first fingerprint on the world, which eventually taught me that i am the world’s fingerprint.

19. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

julian jaynes, above. knock-down-drag-out best: a flawless tour through neuroscience, evo-psych, religious anthropology and world literature. i really liked somewhere by sophia coppola.

20. What are you currently working on?

a book with scott in yoga 2.0 philosophy, called burning questions. a book with elizabeth harvey that body-maps the psyche and psych-maps the body. a book of poems in the form of a rosary meditation. a book about mantras called aham maha, which in sanskrit literally means person, cosmos. a book of poems called reVerse archeology, consisting of a curation of fragments of my own poems from 20 years ago. the fragment is presented as an exhibit, and then the curation notes describe the circumstances of the find and speculate on origins, meanings and finally, how that poet might have died. because he’s definitely dead. he dies at the end of every page.

Matthew Remski conceived of the first Scream in the old Future's Bakery 3 a.m. and then busked medieval troubadour songs on that same corner for six months to pay for it. He couldn't have done the rest of it without Alana, Peter, Bill, Darren, Michael, Tom McKay and many others. After the first year, he left the whole mess in their juggling but capable hands. Now he is a writer in the morning, therapist in the day and a teacher in the evening. He writes about yoga, ayurveda and evolution. organon won the bpnichol award in 1992, dying for veronica was published in 1994, silver in 1996. syrinx and systole, his first collection of poetry in 15 years, was published last year by Quattro. With Scott Petrie, he is co-author of yoga 2.0 — an ongoing deconstructive prayer.

For more information about syrinx and systole, please visit the Quattro Books website.

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


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011) and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com) . He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

For a complete list of rob's 12 or 20 Questions interviews, please visit http://robmclennansindex.blogspot.com/2009/06/12-or-20-questions-second-series.html

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