1. My teacher has asked me to write about one of your poems; can you tell me what it means?
I’ll tell you what I can about the poem, provided that you go first and tell me everything you can. What are your impressions? What does it make you think of? How did you feel when you read it?
2. Whose feet are those on the Home Page?
Those are my feet. I took the photo just outside the Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France. My good friend, the artist Lee Goreas, taught me the importance of looking in places where we don’t usually “see”; he’s a big fan of looking down at things — to see the textures on the road or sidewalk, in a field. I took a similar photo in Victoria many years ago and it was used on the cover of The Malahat Review #94.
3. When did you start writing?
Everyone is creative and we all spend time flirting with the arts when we’re young. We draw, we act, we dance, we write. As we get older things happen to our creativity. We all begin to find our own way of expressing that inherent creativity: some people get good at creating lessons for young children; some people think up clever advertisements; some people grow gardens; some people bake great bread; some people work to recreate our social and political structures. For many others, the work of getting through the day and providing for self and family can take all the energy there is, and so a lot of creativity can be shifted over for later. But the expression of creativity remains a deep human need and is the one redeeming thing about humanity that should give us some hope.
That’s the lecture. Now, the answer: I started writing as soon as I could write. When I was nine I started a novel about skiing. I found it difficult to describe the sensations I felt when I was skiing but I thought it was worth a try. Unfortunately, we lived in a small townhouse in Calgary, Alberta, and I didn’t have a room of my own. I hid the draft (which was four looseleaf pages) in a little space under the television and dragged it out when I thought I was unobserved. One day I came home from school to find my brother reading it and laughing at my efforts and that was the end of my literary ambition for a few years. When I was sixteen, I read some Shakespeare sonnets while simultaneously falling in hormone-fuelled love and began to write love poems. These were found twenty years later by a colleague at UVic who might happily testify to their extremely poor quality. By then it was too late though. In high-school, I had a teacher, Doug Moore, who read some of my poems and stories and did exactly the right thing which was to pass no judgment on them but instead to say `keep going’ while he handed me a stack of novels, stories, and poetry books to read. After that, it was all about finding the teachers who inspired me to keep going; first and foremost, my writing teacher at Okanagan College, John Lent.
4. What is your writing process?
I write best in bursts. I teach at Vancouver Island University which is something I like to do and which takes time, energy, and creativity, but which makes it hard for me to write on a regular schedule. I tend to go away by myself for a week or two and work non-stop for that period so that I might do several months worth of writing in seven or fourteen days but that material will not be polished. During the school year, I can get up at five or six and edit and rewrite that material for an hour or two before I leap into the rest of my day. It’s a slow process but it gets things done. Everyone has to find their own way of working. The important thing is to keep doing it, not just to think about it. It’s better to spend a hundred hours working on something that you’re going to throw away (at least you will have learned someting), than to spend a hundred hours thinking that you’re a writer when you’re not doing any work. I like the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. That’s a lot of hours. Time to get to it.
5. How did you get published (which I take to mean also `How do I get published’)?
Start by thinking about why you want to publish. If it’s all about your ego, and if what you need is recognition from others, you’re going to have a very frustrating literary career and you’re going to wind up bitter and cynical. A lot of people want to write. I’m on the editorial board at The Malahat Review and we get far more good material submitted to us than we can possibly hope to publish–the statistic is that we publish about 3% of the work we get.
When I had some material I thought was good enough–I was in Graduate School by this time, having spent about 2000 hours practicing writing which is a far cry from 10,000–I looked through the literary magazines I had been reading: Malahat, Event, Prism, the Fiddlehead, the New Yorker, Poetry, etc., and bundled up poems in batches of four or five and sent them away to those magazines. When I got them back with a rejection, I read them to see if I still thought they were good. If I didn’t, I revised; if I did, I bundled them up with an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) and sent them off again. I believed in my work so it was discouraging to get those anonymous rejection slips but I kept trying. I must have developed a thick skin, because I got upwards of 30 rejections and had lost that feeling of anticipation when I checked the mail. A letter came from Event and David Zieroth said he liked one of my poems and wanted to publish it, and that was very pleasant.
The process is no different now. I send work away and often it is rejected. The difference is that I send my work away now only because I want it to be read, because I hope that it might do something for someone, sometime, somewhere. I’m open to criticism and starved for good editing, but I’m the only judge of my work strong enough to either keep me going or make me stop.