April is National Poetry Month and who better to be our Author of the Month than Dennis Cooley. The author or editor of over twenty books, Dennis has been influential on the Canadian, and in particular the prairie, poetic landscape. In 19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Dennis Cooley, he shares a few thoughts about his creative process.
Dennis Cooley's books with Turnstone Press:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
In the late 1970s. I had been teaching English at the University of Manitoba for four or five years and intently working on the American poets Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Duncan. I was also soon swept up into the excitement in Canadian literature, a lot of it buoyed by Canadian nationalism and the flood of writing and publishing from elsewhere in Canada and I began with a sense of adventure and purpose to teach it. At the same time I joined with a rambunctious bunch of graduate students and young professors—Robert Enright, John Beaver, David Arnason, and Wayne Tefs—to get a new press, Turnstone, going. A colleague, Ken Hughes, who had immigrated to Canada, supported us with a passionate belief in local culture. It was a time of permission, much of it enabled by Arnason's illimitable presence and daring. We all were young and filled with dreams of what could happen. We were all from the prairies, excited about literature. We had grown up in a world that told us these things were not for folks like us. If you were really venturesome you allowed for Toronto maybe, possibly even Vancouver. But not the prairies we all knew and cared for. For almost the first time in our lives we lived with the heady promise that we could be part of making things happen. And we poured ourselves into it all.
We were all involved in reading and editing. All my life I had loved poetry and now here I was, closely involved. It wasn't long after pouring over those manuscripts that I realized I could write something myself. Editing, it seemed to me, is very close to writing. I still believe that.
Do you still submit individual poems to magazines and journals for publication? Why or why not?
I don't send much out. I never did, really. It may be that I was discouraged by early rejections. It may be because I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that editors would not like what I was doing. Most of all, I suspect, it has been simple inertia. I am always caught up with half a dozen manuscripts. As long as the writing is rolling I'm not much inclined to stop long enough to pour over heaps of manuscripts to drag out little batches of poems and get them off. I am one of those easily deterred by nuisances and I loathed the process of shipping out batch after batch after batch through the mail. And getting them back. A lot of my writing consists of long poems, whose parts necessarily speak to one another, and in part depend on that conversation, so extracts will not always work as stand-alones. Mostly I'm happily writing away and the manuscripts get bigger and bigger and more and more and stopping to sort and select and submit seems a nuisance. I find that taking a project further and further is enormously challenging, and I am reluctant to leave the pleasure of its momentum.
What inspires you?
I'd be hard pressed to name anything specifically. I run with what puzzles, entertains, pleases, nags at me. What strikes me and haunts me, what most matters to me, what I most want to speak of. What moves or amuses or intrigues me. Pretty much what incites other writers too, I'd imagine. Other writers and other books fire me up. Sometimes that means a general sense of excitement, sometimes it means very identifiable sources. One of my titles derives in part from Dracula, another from a book on astronauts, two others from a Sinclair Ross novel. Another builds around a legendary figure in early twentieth-century Manitoba. So, there's a lot of happenings-upon and lucky openings. Family and friends occasion a lot of the writing.
Is there a particular time of day which you write best?
Not that I'm aware. It's depended on what calls on me there have been. The times when I did write, for years, were controlled by my work as a professor, which during the academic year was enormously consuming, and left very little time to write, except for a few stolen minutes here and there. For years much of my writing was done in the summer when I was at the cottage on my own. Now, retired, I write at almost any time, though mostly in the morning and afternoon.
How has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication?
The first little chapbook assembled assorted poems, as did a few other titles in the mid 1980s. It's almost predictable that a writer's first poems would be occasional. I soon began to think of writing toward a book. For decades I have worked almost exclusively on books whose individual pieces are part of a long poem. Well over half of them have been constructed that way. The writing has probably also become increasingly metalingual, as it is in, say, abecedarium.
How do you know that a poem is finished? Is a poem ever finished for you?
I don't know when it's finished, or how I could know, and I don't especially want it to be finished. I want it to be "good," which for me means that the language is vital and venturesome. I don't want it to be "finished," which implies a fixity and a finality that for me is not particularly desirable or even possible. What does happen, typically for me, is an initial draft, sometimes only a phrase or a few lines, which I amplify or intensify. I try to draw out the potential. What can be done with this? What's there that could migrate into a more intriguing version of itself, or something else? The poem may grow and grow and change. I work through a dozen, or a lot more, revisions (some of them small) but I never reach a point at which I say "That's it, I've got it, don't change a comma." Somewhere I get thinking the thing has got tired and I cut it back. I try to make it as strong and lively and interesting as I can and I move on, though I seldom leave anything alone for long. In the end, though, it's a matter of letting it go. W.H. Auden (he took this from Valery I think) once said a poem is never finished, it is abandoned. I was deeply offended when I first read this. I thought it was an excuse for slovenliness. Now I think it is absolutely right. It is for me at least.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a manuscript while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
I like them both, though I don't find them to be distinct stages. I'm constantly revising and editing. I move poems around inside a manuscript, transpose lines from one poem to an entirely other manuscript, delete chunks of poems, insert words, change the lineation, nudge parts of a poem into new positions, constantly change wordings. I read and daydream in search of whatever might strike my fancy and set off changes. By the time a manuscript gets to an editor I will have put in hundreds of hours tuning it. But I'm always grateful for whatever wisdom or information I can get. It's a gift to find someone who understands what you are trying to do and who goes carefully over what you've produced. Where else do you find anyone willing to so freely offer a special kind of intelligence and a lot of time? Editors get little thanks for their generosities, and more than their share of blame. But they are a boon to writers.
While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?
Yes, constantly. I always have a batch of manuscripts on the go, and I move easily among them. Part of what happens is accident—the serendipities of the brain. When it's working on one site it hits a spark that elicits a word, a phrase, a sound that nicely drops into a different project. The neurons bounce back and forth, and so do the words.
Much of your career saw you mentoring other writers and teaching university literature. How did you balance your work/writing lives?
I was lucky. It was all of a parcel. Almost anything I did spoke to whatever else I did. Teaching provided familiarity with texts. Working with others' manuscripts asked for special care with form and style and structure. Sitting over coffee with young writers in their marvellous sense of how much writing matters heartened me. Writing reviews and critical essays increased a sense of how and why writing might be done. Literary theory helped to show what I was doing or might be doing. All of the work made it easier to supervise theses, which exposed me to texts and ways of reading. My own writing informed the teaching and editing. The reciprocities went on and on.
Grading papers and handling forms and writing reports for an increasingly debilitating bureaucracy wore on me.
You’ve travelled extensively. How has travel figured into your creative process? Do you write on the road, or do you prefer to just take it all in and compose once you are “home” in your usual writing environment?
Yes, I do some writing when I'm travelling but mostly I'm taking notes. The most substantial writing has taken the form of journals in which I felt less compelled to generate literary and publishable work, though I amplified and refined and keyboarded them when I got home. I have been able to return to those records and plumb them for more literary purposes. One of the journals, passwords, from when I taught Canadian literature in the ancient and fabled city of Trier for the summer of 1990 in Germany, I did keep with the thought of bringing it to publication. I entered it and revised it with that in mind.
Is there a particular trip which you favoured above others? What piece of work evolved from that journey?
I've been unbelievably lucky in my travels, and I've loved all of them, so it seems ungrateful if not mean-spirited to choose among them. I have made many pleasurable trips to Portugal, each of them a special joy. I had been there briefly for the first time in 1994 and returned the next year to an international poetry conference. I find it hard to choose but I would say that was probably my favourite trip—intense days of hearing poetry, reading it, wonderful and varied sites for performance, audiences that responded strongly to everything, the excitement of meeting other poets. It was sheer joy. Best of all I was there with Robert Kroetsch, a wonderful friend and fabulous poet. Besides, Portugal's a place of stunningly varied landscapes, delicious seafood, curious cities, warm and hospitable and unpretentious people who, best of all, love poetry. I immensely enjoyed how rural and almost primal parts of the country are—the handsome cork trees, equally beautiful cattle, the astounding conglomerations of Celtic stones, the sweeping empty spaces in the northeast where you happen suddenly on handsome frontier towns that had been built as a defence against the Spanish. And always in Portugal a wonderful love of poetry. In Portugal they put up statues of poets.
A few poems have come out of the visits to Europe, especially Scotland and Germany (which I've happily visited about a dozen times).
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
I love doing readings. It's exhilarating to give voice to poems that otherwise doze on the page, waiting for someone, yourself too, to wake and hear them. You actually hear them in ways you never did before and never could and they can seem at times to be wonderful discoveries, gifts to you. They become new poems to you too and you hear in them more than you did when they lie silent. That's not always a good thing, of course, but mostly it's good.
My very favourite site for reading is radio. There's no one to worry about your posture or your stained sweater or your unshaven state or your unseemly scratching. There's no one to distract you. (Few to encourage you either.) At public readings there can be people talking loudly among themselves or looking at their watches or standing up to abandon the room. I once had a woman who showed up at a reading in Regina. She sat conspicuously, demonstratively, in the front and waited for 5 or 6 minutes before she stood up, dramatically, to make her departure. She made a show of her leaving, played it out emphatically. I was pretty sure she had planned the scene.
But radio. Radio gives you the very best sounds, those microphones and studios and technicians, those reassuring rooms with a comfortable chair and a table and a friendly host. (I didn't always feel this way. The first time I appeared on radio I was so nervous I was hyperventilating and my mother, hurt, said when I got home it didn't even sound like you.) You don't have to worry about being heard in the corner of a room or honoured at a table that is more interested in hearing itself than the reading, or the sounds of accident. I love the energies of public readings, love the kibittzing, love to speak with people who are in the audience, and to hear from them. But I still prefer radio. With radio you get just the exact pick-up of the sound. You can read clearly, expressively from inside the poem, even the most quiet and inward poems, to whomever might be listening. Despite the total physical removal from audience, you can speak with the finest range of tone and volume and pacing to the audience. I find it powerfully intimate.
If you had only one piece of advice to give aspiring writers what would it be?
Lots of advice. Be patient. Be curious. Be open. Push yourself. Be humble. Take pride in what you do. Take chances. Learn things. Take joy in what you do. Respect the language.
You’ve always been an advocate for poetry and Canadian literature, being involved at the ground floor of many literary ventures including festivals, journals, our own Turnstone Press and the Manitoba Writers Guild, among others. Why has literature been so very important to you, and why in particular poetry?
For the longest time, when would-be Canadian writers looked in the mirror, they saw every face but their own. We were never written into somebody's else's literature. In writing our own, we can speak to the things that we most care about or most need to address, give them some shape and credence. Until quite recently, and maybe still, writing has for many of us meant speaking as if for the first time of what most matters and what most moves us. So we needed venues for that to happen. The romantic notion of the tortured and bold soul writing his solitary genius into eternity is totally inadequate. There can be no ongoing and fully developing literature without the wherewithal that enables and sustains it. That's what a lot of us were after in those years.
In literature you get all those wonderful challenges and permissions. You can try out things, let 'er rip, dredge up your muddied resources—memory and research and fantasy and observation and craft. You get to do this with people who share those ridiculous desires and your own outrageous behaviour. There are few things as gratifying.
But poetry. Poetry above all. Forget the embarrassing sales numbers, disregard the avowed aversions, set aside for the moment your own panicked flight when you were caught unsuspecting at a poetry launch. Poetry's the lucky terrain of what-ifs and just-supposings. It's in poetry that we speak most urgently, most eloquently, most pointedly, most succinctly to our unspoken selves. It is there that we happen upon anticipated or forgotten lives. When you fall in love you want a poem, you might even steal one and hope it will find favour, or at least speak for you. Else why the booming business for greeting cards? They perform a useful function, sometimes skillfully, but they are so generic that they immediately and everywhere become everyone's poem. Sometimes we want more, better songs to sing. When your spouse dies only a poem will do, and you wish you could find one or write one—a good one that says what for the rest of the time you cannot quite say or know how to say or bring yourself to say. No ordinary remembrance will do. You want, at least for yourself, a poem that can give contours to your loneliness and sound to your yearning. A poem to speak in wonder of what might touch you, or delight you, or bewilder you. In reckless moments you might even welcome a poem that challenges your understanding of what language and knowledge is, jolt you open to what strangely has been made and laid before you. You would like something to surprise you, with the sting of a mosquito bite, perhaps, to tip you into intimacies you had not quite realized were yours. When that happens you may feel a small shiver: yes, that's right, that's how it feels. Sometimes poems tell us what we don't know we already knew, and there's that rush of pleasure. Though you might not have said so, you have been waiting for a poem whose wit and rhythm rinses you with newness. You want lines, you hunger for lies, clever and unusual lies, that do not take as irrevocable what at our most tired and resigned and obstinate we suppose is the real and only world. When we are looking for something adequate to our desires we know that literalness and acquiescence won't hack it. We want to be alive to the world and stirred into something more. It's a more expanded and a more charged world we hunger for, even when we don't know it. That's why we secretly want the intensities and misadventures that we call poetry.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
I hadn't thought of it like this but, yes, I guess I do. A moon-shaped stone, smooth on all sides, light brown with green and blue seeping through, and lines and fissures. It fits nicely in the palm of the hand, feels perfect, and every now and then I pick it up, hold it in the palm, polish it on my nose. I don't remember where I got it, but it's always there beside the computer.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
Nothing peculiar—dark roast coffee. Fair trade. I drink lots of coffee all morning. Lots of water at night.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
I have a conglomeration of music, lots of it from the 50s and 60s, mostly pop—rock, rhythm and blues, folk, doo wop, country, big band, bits of jazz and classical, lots of other stuff I don't know how to name—in my iTunes library and I listen to it often. I don't usually listen while I'm writing, though, not when I'm writing poetry that is.
Do you draft long-hand, or do you compose at the keyboard?
Depends on what I'm writing. I do all of my correspondence on the keyboard, and most of the prose: reviews, statements (such as this one), essays. I invariably begin poetry with hand-written notes and snippets and drafts and I diddle with them in more hand-writing. After a bit of that I type up what I have, print it out, and write more notes, revisions, suggestions onto the page. Then it's back to keyboarding. This goes on interminably. I also keyboard scattered notes into a series I gather in a folder, "notes for poems." I add to the files week after week, month after month, so that I gather what are sometimes enormous files of material. Right now I have nearly 250 pages of notes for love in a dry land, a long poem I have been writing forever. A lot of the notes will be repetitious since I don't keep track of what's in there, or what I add. I simply insert stuff as I think of it, most of it from bits I scribble on bits of paper as they occur to me.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
Well, the thing is writing has been in a practical sense a second career to my life as an academic. My greater love has been writing so it makes sense, I guess, to speak of it as my career. But I've worked most of my life in the academy and an immense part of my energies and attentions went into that life, which for the most part I enjoyed immensely. I've been one of the very fortunate people whose vocation and avocation have been happily related. But, to answer the question: I've been so long immersed in my world that I find it difficult to name an option. Had video and the new media been around decades ago I might have given that a go, but for me, given where and when I grew up writing was about as likely a route as any. I had intended to become a highschool teacher of English and biology when I went to university. But the other arts seemed far away from me. I couldn't keep a tune, in public school endured with an acute sense of misery art classes, which I found humiliating and impossible to enter. As a kid I set six or so track and field records, loved basketball, was a pretty good baseball player, and I had a fantasy of being a professional athlete. One of my public school teachers had an enormous influence on my love of writing and poetry and I may have been set afloat way back then.