Paula Haley Wilson in Conversation with Christopher Honeywell

“Not Far Afield”

Paula Haley Wilson: You recently had an exhibition and sale of your photography in Montreal. Is this the first time you’ve done this? Three of your pieces, “Transmission,” “Landlocked,” and “Paper Specter” are included in Soliloquies 16.1, which will be available in print this May as Soliloquies 16. In them, people are either absent or once-removed, as through the television screen in “Transmission” or as a shadow in “Paper Specter.” Are they part of a series from the exhibition?
Christopher Honeywell: I showed the three pieces that will be published in Soliloquies 16 at Galerie Nota Bene in February as part of a series I called “Not Far Afield.” It was my first formal exhibition, so I had a lot of material to draw from that had never seen the light of day. Most of the photos in the series I shot while living in Montreal, and some (like “Paper Specter,” which I shot in Prague last summer) were shot while traveling over the past two years or so. In both cases I tend to take a relatively passive stance in terms of direction; when I do direct a photo, I’ll see a potential image or arrange the setting in a particular way and give pretty subtle cues to the subject to make the photo work. Otherwise, I’ll just stand still with the camera at my eye and wait for the image to align in front of me. Mostly I just photograph interesting scenes I come across.
Going through my archives to come up with a bunch of work to fill the gallery with was a great exercise in understanding the kinds of images that I’m attracted to. What I found was that a lot of the photos I was most happy with were portraits of people that were obscured in one way or another. A lot of the subjects in my photos are made less visible by the weather, or by another medium like television or a window, or by an outfit or make-up. Also, a lot of the subjects relate to their setting in kind of uncanny or ironic ways. I like to play with the ways that subjects can be manipulated by the way they relate to their setting. Like how a person photographed in an entirely man-made setting takes on a completely different character than someone shot alongside natural elements, even if they’re just in a city park.
I think it’s interesting to see how changing the setting of a photo can have such drastic effects on the viewer’s perception of the photo’s relation to reality, like how when you see an image of a person set against a building’s facade or in a city park you assume the image was taken spontaneously, but when you shoot a photo indoors you immediately change the viewer’s relationship to the image; it becomes less clear whether the photo is a spontaneous snapshot or a staged scene. I like to hope that in my most successful photos it’s clear why I took the picture but the scene looks as though it arose naturally, regardless of the setting.

“Femme Fatale”

PHW: Does living in Montreal shape your subject matter? How has this evolved for you?
CH:I really enjoy shooting photos in Montreal because the city looks so timeless. I tend to avoid photographing details that reveal when the photo was taken. It’s not like I look for old cars to include in the shot to trick the viewer into thinking the photo was shot in 1960, but I’m generally happier with the photos I take that are free of modern signifiers. It’s easy to find lively places to photograph in Montreal that look as though they could have existed anytime in the last 50 years, which I find makes a photo more relevant in the long run.

PHW: Finally, if our readers want to get a hold of some of your work, where can they do this?
CH: I co-operate an artist-run centre in Mile End called La Plante/The Plant where we host all kinds of cultural events from art exhibitions to music shows, to a community kitchen that runs every Sunday evening. On May 20th we’re holding the second installment of The Plant Art Market, where we offer a free venue for artists to display and sell their work. I’ll be selling some work, so anyone interested should come say hi and check out some other local artists’ work! If you’re interested in participating you can submit any kind of visual art to theplantartmarket@gmail.com and reserve space. You can also find more details here: http://www.facebook.com/events/279841088771575/?ref=ts
If you want to get in touch with me directly about my work or anything else that happens at La Plante/The Plant, you can email me at christopher.honeywell@gmail.com. You can also take a look at some work on my website, christopherhoneywell.com.

self portrait self portrait

Author
Christopher Honeywell is a Montreal-based photographer shooting exclusively in film with an emphasis on natural and improvised lighting. He practices both traditional darkroom and digital transfer processes. Christopher recently graduated from Concordia University with a BA in English Literature. For more of his work visit http://christopherhoneywell.com/

Liv Albert in Conversation with Matthew Dunleavy

Matthew Dunleavy sits, or so he would have me paint the picture for us all, picturesquely, holding a glass of scotch and smoking a very large cigar, which only seems to make his English accent all the more appropriate (in actuality he’s drinking PBR on a balcony/fire escape—he does have the accent, though). He also prefaces the interview, because it was originally recorded, that when recorded his voice sounds like Grimace. Yes, Grimace the large, purple, blob-like thing from McDonald’s (I had to clarify myself).

Building Mount Royal Building Mount Royal

Liv Albert: So, Matthew, how about we start with the basics and you provide a little background as to how you got introduced to photography?
Matthew Dunleavy: My dad used to be into photography, pre-the birth of Matthew Dunleavy, and basically his camera went to the depths of a cupboard somewhere for years because the way he puts it to me now is that he had the choice between rolls of film and nappies. I luckily had nappies instead of him having rolls of film.
I was into art growing up, drawing, painting a lot, eventually just talking to my dad about his photography when he was younger and finding some old photos of his. He let me have his old camera to use, but it had a broken light metre. It was relatively old, like early eighties. So because of this what I had to do was carry around a little notepad and write down the settings I used and then when I got them printed up, match the different settings—the different aperture and shutter speed. I wasn’t brought into it in the digital world; I have an appreciation for the actual method of photography.
Then I started working as a photo restorer, doing Photoshop work. I started editing my photos and playing around with the different things I could do, not Instagram kind of stuff. Basically it was then costing me a lot of money because I was developing the film, having it scanned to CD, then printing off the edits again. I eventually bought a used Nikon D70S, which I very much enjoyed. But then I started doing model and wedding photography, so I upgraded to a D300. I actually got one of the first twenty in Canada. I got it before it was released because I worked for a photography company, and that’s what I use now. I still like using film but it’s so costly now.

LA: Your photo “Kerouac”; I think the title is pretty self-explanatory for the subject matter, but where exactly was this taken? Were you just struck by the particular scene before you? Is there a story behind the photo?
MD: I actually chose that name just for the submission to Soliloquies. I never name my photographs because there’s no reason unless you’re printing them and displaying them or something.
That’s one of my favourite photographs because it’s one of my oldest. When I was in that transition from film to digital, I was working at the photography studio at the time and we were able to borrow cameras, which was very nice. It was an official thing; they wanted the staff to know the cameras. Before I got the used D70S, I borrowed a D50 one night. I went out for a drive, so this was between the store’s closing at nine and then I had to have it back by the morning. So I went for a drive just outside the town I moved to when I emigrated, which was Ajax. It’s like most of the GTA east of Toronto, so close to nice countryside. I went for a drive around; it was the middle of the night and completely dead. So I got out into the middle of the road to take the picture, and I just like it because I don’t do scenery usually; I’m especially not a flower guy, things like that. But that scene I liked because it felt very North American, you know what I mean? Like in England we have countryside but it’s all winding roads. This was a massive stretch of tarmac which you just imagine as the road trip kind of thing, and then just the fields. I liked that.

LA: The photo is in black and white; is there a reason for that?
MD: That photo was my test photo, when I was doing all my Photoshop edits, practicing for restoration work, testing things I could do for customers. So that photo, I have so many of them; I have natural colouring which is nice because it’s a really blue sky. I have ones where it’s different monochromes, but I ended up just really liking the black and white. And especially when you get into the road trip mentality. Road trip photos should be in black and white. I don’t know why any time I think of a road trip I think of On the Road, and I think that it was just at the beginning of colour photography, so if Kerouac was carrying around photos on his trip, they would be in black and white.

LA: The current idea of black and white photography as a whole is a funny thing. I hope we all can appreciate my quoting Community (I know for a fact, Matthew, you will) when I say, “just because something is in black and white, doesn’t mean it’s good.” How do you feel about using black and white? Obviously it is appropriate in many cases; it can often add to the effect the photograph has on its viewer that its natural colour would have lacked. But I think that nowadays it means the photo has to have a little extra something that is able to push it beyond its black and white status. You’ve already told me why you chose it for this particular photo, but of the style in general, what do you think?
MD: I used to shoot in black and white film as well, so it’s not like, “oh this photo isn’t good on its own, I’m just going to hit the black and white button.” I don’t do the desaturate on Photoshop, you know? I do manual adjustments to choose how the black and white looks. If it were in a dark room I would choose how it looked: do I want it really contrasty, or do I want the subtle grey shades?
But I think this idea that was brought up very well by Community; it’s great that there’s an access to photography for everyone now, especially because, like I mentioned, my dad had to give up photography for family. Basically it’s that the access is there but people misuse it. You can pick up a Digital SLR and use it for high quality photos, but people think that they should just put it on auto, don’t take it off auto, click it around and then hit the black and white button.
Then you have the issue that started with Facebook and Picnik, or whatever that was called. I remember doing a photo shoot, because I used to do weddings and things, and somebody took my family portraits and Picniked them, and I was so offended, so offended. And then there’s the Instagram thing. It’s amazing that the iPhone has the camera that it has but it’s become, “let’s just instagram this and make it hip and retro.” You can tell that it’s more of a gimmicky thing because Facebook bought it.

LA: They did, and for a billion dollars! When it makes no money. What a symbol of its reach.
MD: And that guy’s laughing because he’s taken the basics from a system like Photoshop and made them just buttons, and there you go.
I remember, during the transition to digital, I was in high school and doing photos for the yearbook and they gave me a digital camera not to keep but just to have as mine. And I used to have to carry around two packs of six floppy disks because that’s what the camera took. I could get two photos to a floppy disk and had to carry them all around with me with this massive camera.

LA: Okay, Matthew, you seem to be dating yourself, and incorrectly I imagine, because there must have been better cameras out there then, when you were in high school. You must have just had the worst camera in the school.
MD: Well, I was from not a really small town but just now a really good high school. But that was what I had.

LA: I didn’t even know those existed! But I guess it’s given you a good grasp on the variety of camera technologies.
MD: They were in a really small period, because before that they had disks; Kodak’s first one used disks. Then you had these floppy disks for a while; the whole back of the camera was this floppy disk spot. And then you had the compact flash cards.

Barn Barn

LA: The other photograph you have published in Soliloquies is “Gale Ferris, Jr.”, which I think is particularly “trippy” (I’m not sure I’ve ever used that word before now) [Matthew then suggests the use of “radical”]. Now, call me a photography amateur, but that effect comes from leaving the shutter on your camera open for a particular amount of time, doesn’t it? What made you decide to try that and did/do you do it often? The effect it gives to the photograph is pretty incredible. I think it really captures the moment; the excitement of a fair and the effect of a Ferris wheel in general.
MD: Yes that is how you do it, with the shutter. And it was a period which I don’t think I’ve left behind fully, but it was a period where I did a lot of nighttime photography because I was working all the time during the day. I really experimented with long-exposure photography. I did try the long exposure like, say, the night scenes, like that perfect landscape of the nighttime with the stars, but I’m so impatient that I couldn’t do that. When I say long exposure I’m talking thirty seconds to a minute; like I think that one was a minute.
I would drive around with a friend who didn’t do photography himself but enjoyed the experience of being involved with the process and seeing the finished product. So he would drive me around and I would hang out the window doing long exposure trying to get the lights of the night going by, so I have a lot of these really trippy ones. Or I’d purposely leave the house while I was really drunk to do long exposure while I’m walking. There’s this one where everything’s really shaken up, but because I must have been swaying the same way as this tree in the wind I kept on level with it, so the world is really fucked up but the tree isn’t.
Anyway, there was this little carnival; you know the ones in the Wal-Mart parking lots? It wasn’t even a real fair but I went there to take photos, but I feel like when you do a long exposure and capture the moment of the ride you sort of get that experience of being there. Because when you’re walking around even in a shitty Wal-Mart fair there’s just so much going on that you never really get anything, there’s just a blur.
So I did it with all the rides but I have so many of the Ferris wheel ’cause I was experimenting with the changes that would come with just a little switch in the shutter speed. I have some that are just blurs of light and some that have a little trickle in and you can still see it as stable. This photo was middle ground: you haven’t lost the Ferris wheel but you’ve still gained the motion. I have a lot of them. I also have a couple photos where I did do regular photos as well so it’s half; half of it is going and the other half is stable.

LA: So of all these photos of the rides you took, why the Ferris wheel over any others?
MD: The reason I picked the Ferris wheel instead of the other rides is because this carny, carnival man, whatever is politically correct, came over to me while I was taking the photos and tried to take my camera. I asked him, “what are you doing?” and he says [putting on some sort of “carnivalesque” accent], “you’ve been out here with your tripod and whatever this thing is.” So he basically started getting on me like I’ve been taking photos of the carnival people trying to capture them. So I went through all of my photos with this guy trying to prove that because they’re long exposure you can’t see anybody. I remember him leaving and he was still trying to be all tough and he just says, “well, they’re pretty good.”

stare stare

Author
Matthew Dunleavy started taking photos when his Dad allowed him the use of his Praktica that he had eyed since childhood. Due to this particular camera being broken he was forced to learn the tools of the trade in the most difficult way. Matthew uses his interest in drawing and painting to influence the way he captures images; from balanced, traditional scenes to abstract light paintings his subject differs as much as his style. His photos were published in Soliloquies 16.1.

Lizy Mostowski in Conversation with Aga Maksimowska

Lizy Mostowski: Aga, your short story “Why Yesterday I Keyed My Father’s Car” is the first chapter from your novel Giant, forthcoming from Pedlar Press. Does this in any way comment on how you first wrote the novel? I am aware that some writers construct their novels from a series of short stories; is that the case here as well?
Aga Maksimowska: Yes and no. When I first attempted this novel it was a different thing entirely: different title, different premise, more characters, albeit the same narrator and settings. It was during the second attempt that I gave myself a constraint of ten chapters, each one named after an event from the decathlon. (Decathlon was the title of the second attempt of the novel.) As a result, each chapter of the book was a sort of standalone story loosely inspired by a decathlon event. Mind you, I have a hard time writing short stories. I think they’re the most difficult thing to write; that’s why I admire short story writers so much.  The published incarnation of the book, Giant, has eleven chapters, so as you can see, the work has really evolved over time.

LM: I know that you were born in Gdańsk, Poland. I also know, as a Polish-Canadian myself, that some people live a sort of half-life, one that is here and there in almost equal parts. Do you feel this way at all? How often do you go back to visit? Do you still have family there? Is Poland a large part of who you are today?
AM: I was actually born in Gdynia, a former fishing village that’s now a modern, vibrant city near Gdańsk. It’s much less Gothic and Soviet than Gdańsk; I love it very much.
I wouldn’t say that I live a half-life. I think of myself as a Canadian first. I’ve made a pretty conscious choice a long time ago to immerse myself in Canadian culture and make this place my one and only fixed home—at a cost, of course. As a result, my spoken Polish is horrible for someone who only spoke that language for the first twelve years of her life. I’m ashamed of it from time to time, especially when I meet other Polish-Canadians who are beautifully and functionally bilingual. I do have moments when I feel neither here nor there, neither Polish nor Canadian. Those are pretty vulnerable, unstable moments. But I suppose many people feel this way—displaced somehow, whether physically, emotionally, spiritually, or what not. I tried to channel those feelings of belonging and isolation while creating the protagonist of Giant.
Finally, no, I don’t go back to Poland often, even though I do have oodles and oodles of family there. (I’ve been back four times since my family emigrated.) It’s prohibitively expensive. When time and finances for a vacation are available there is always the temptation to go somewhere new, somewhere unknown. I’ve also had other “homes,” because of work abroad and travel, that I am yearning to visit again one day: Australia, Spain, Italy, Mexico… But I will go back to Poland soon. I have to. The duty and drive to introduce that complicated and wonderful place to my daughter is definitely there. I just wish it were a little bit closer. I envy my Polish cousins and friends who live in the U.K., Ireland, or Germany. They have Ryanair!

LM: When did you decide that you were going to be a writer? What was your mother’s reaction?
AM: I don’t think I ever decided to be a writer, to be honest. I know—that sounds terrible. I always wrote, since I can remember. As a child, I wrote stories about girls with very English surnames and ‘published’ them with hardcovers made of shoebox cardboard and bound them with yarn I’d steal from my grandmother. My mother kept everything I did in these great big files that could be tied together with string. She still has boxes of my “work” somewhere. I have the best mom. But regardless of unconditional family support of my art form, I have never been able to say to someone at a dinner party, “Hi, I’m a writer. What do you do?” I suffer from a terrible case of A-type personality; hence I have always considered writing a hobby, not a viable career choice. Today, I’m a high school teacher. I love what I do. And, as it turns out, writing and teaching are agreeable companions, so I hope to continue juggling the two for as long as I can.

LM: Writers have various writing habits and schedules. What is yours? Is there a time of day in which you feel most productive?
AM: I used to be a morning person. Giant was written predominantly at 5 a.m., before the teaching day would begin. At the end of the day, there were always too many personalities, too many events, too many conflicts running through my head. It would have been a messy novel had I written in the evenings. However, now that I have other people relying on me at home, I will have to explore writing in the evenings. I don’t think creative writing at 5 a.m. will ever happen for me again, or maybe not until my daughter is a teenager. My former office is also now her bedroom, so I’m pretty sure that I will do the bulk of my work on the next novel at Robarts Library or at the dining room table.

LM: Do you write in any medium other than prose?
AM: No, but I would love to try my hand at a screenplay one day, which is a kind of prose but a very different genre of writing.

LM: Which writers do you admire? Who has influenced your writing style?
AM: Arundhati Roy, James Baldwin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jamaica Kincaid, Camilla Gibb, Lawrence Hill, Heather O’Neill, Helen Humphreys, just to name a few whose work I keep coming back to consistently. I don’t know which one of them has influenced my style the most. All of them, I suppose. Each one of them humbles me when I read and reread their work and then reflect on my own writing. I’m learning all the time. I still have a long, long way to go. I’m excited to try all the tools and techniques I learned while writing this first novel on my second one.

LM: You recently graduated from Guelph’s MFA program. How do you feel about the workshop environment? Do you think that it is always a valuable environment for a writer to be in or does it sometimes feel stagnant?
AM: I loved the workshop environment. It really pushed me. It forced me to produce, but more importantly, it forced me to ask questions of my own work, and to rewrite. Plus deadlines. Deadlines are key to transferring one’s novel from the bucket list to the desk drawer, then to the hands of family and friends, and finally, out into the world, which I suppose is the goal of every writer. You want strangers to read your books, not just your husband and your best friend. The entire MFA experience was wholly valuable to me and I would recommend it to anyone serious about the craft of writing.

LM: Writers have to deal with a lot of rejection when they start out. What is your advice to dealing with it? What is the strangest rejection you have ever received?
AM: Oh Lord. I would like some advice on dealing with rejection myself. I think writers always deal with it, no matter what stage in their career they are at. I’m the proud owner of a four-inch-thick file folder of rejection letters from literary journals, and a Gmail folder packed with rejection emails from agents and publishers. The key is to see rejection as part of the process. Some of the letters can help you improve your writing. I remember an editor at PRISM who would send me lovely, hand-written notes of detailed feedback about my stories. I really appreciated the time he took and his generosity of literary expertise. This leads me to the weirdest rejection, which was an email from an agent that went on and on about how good my writing was and how alive the world of the novel was and how engaging the characters were but how he could never sell my novel—ever—because no one’s interested in Eastern Europe.

LM: Finally, what is your advice for young, emerging writers? What has been the key to your success?
AM: I was about to correct you and say, “What success?” but I suppose having a novel published is success in itself. My advice to emerging writers would be to keep going. Everyone’s got a story to tell, and if you have the desire, the talent, the interest, and the drive to tell it, do it! Don’t keep that novel in a drawer, or worse yet, in the back of your head. Work on it. Even if it’s an hour here and there. Write it, read it to a group of friends, organize a writing group, polish, rewrite, submit it somewhere. Take continuing ed. courses at your local university or college. That’s how I started writing this novel. Having a supportive, nurturing writing community will fuel you to get it done.

Author
Aga Maksimowska lives in Toronto. She is currently Head of English at an independent day school for boys. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, a Bachelor of Education from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University. Her work has appeared online and in print in Canada and Australia. Her first novel, Giant, is being published in May 2012 by Pedlar Press. Her short story, “Why Yesterday I Keyed My Father’s Car,” has been edited as a stand-alone piece from the novel’s opening chapter.

Dylan Riley in Conversation with Ali Pinkney [Audio]

When I talked to Ali for a pre-interview interview, she was full of good stories. Like how her grandparents immigrated to Canada from Finland fifty years ago when her grandmother got pregnant, and how they still can’t really speak English. Then about her parents, her older sister, and a 960 dollar dry cleaning bill she got recently. I tried to write everything down, and had the idea that the whole thing would sort of be about family.

The second time around, when things were actually being recorded, the whole thing felt a bit forced. Like you can’t really have the same conversation twice. But the good news is that Ali seems to be just interesting all the time, and she’s got lots of thing to talk about. So much so that it was hard to pare it into a short interview.

Of the five poems Ali’s going to be reading, “In Very Mountainous Country” and “Hot’n’Heavy” are featured in issue 16.1 of Soliloquies. Also, the poems, “Equal Opportunities” (in twoparts) and “In Very Mountainous Country” are set into visual collages that that Ali has put together.

More good news is that Ali’s an excellent reader. Theatrical in the best sense. It’s funny, but I always seem to forget just how important that is.

Dylan Riley in Conversation with Frankie Barnet [Audio]

So, this has been a little while in the making. It’s the first of a series I’m calling The Audio Files. It’s going to have Soliloquies contributors and maybe other Montreal readers reading their work, and then talking with them a bit afterwards.

The first person up is Frankie Barnet, and she’s reading her story “Décarie” out of issue fifteen.

I first read this story a few months ago, on the way on the way home from the launch of the same issue. Frankie read that night, and I’d heard her read once before, but nothing of this length. I had a wait before the last metro came, so I started in. As I read it everything hit me at once; the quick prose and real characters, the humour of it, and this sort of sadness, loneliness, that carries through the whole piece. I finished it right as I got to my stop (Frontenac at the time), and as I walked to my place I kept thinking: ‘this is the writing I want to be reading.’ I’ve been wanting to record it since.

And a note on the audio. As you’ll be able to tell pretty quickly, I don’t really know what I’m doing. So much so that I actually recorded this in a hallway on the tenth floor of the library. You’ll have to deal with elevator’s beeping, doors shutting, papers rustling, people coughing. Along with a bit of choppy editing.

But bear with me – the story’s worth it.

Dylan Riley in Conversation with Jeff Blackman

Dylan Riley: From what I can tell, The Moose and Pussy is based out of Ottawa. I actually spent last summer there, and I can remember a conversation I overheard between two people, one from Toronto and one from Ottawa. The person from Toronto kept asking the person from Ottawa what they were still doing in Ottawa. How do you feel about the idea that Ottawa can get painted as a stopover between two larger cities?
Jeff Blackman: Everywhere’s a stopover town. Montreal’s a stopover for every Canadian going to Europe.

DR: How do you feel the Ottawa writing scene compares to Montreal’s?
JB: I don’t know much about the Montreal scene, beyond what I learned in modernist poetry seminars. A new poetry festival, VERSe, debuted this year. What came of that could be called a reconciliation between the page- and slam-poet communities.

DR: There’s a lot of play with spaces, indents, lack of capitalization, and italics throughout your poem “tower defense (or, our love is like 9/11 and I don’t want to jump).” What were you looking to accomplish with the form of this poem?
JB: I tend to experiment with rules and forms. “tower defense” comes from a time, about a year and change ago, when I was experimenting with multidirectional poetry, which is a term I may have invented just now. The idea was the reader can jump ahead and skip parts, or at least see a separation of ideas. I also on occasion use breaks and spaces to pace a poem. As for the lack of capitalization, that has to do with a desire to uphold proper nouns and characters above the rest of the words. I admit much of this is nonsense.

DR: What’s the intent with the sexual edge to the same poem?
JB: When you’re in a relationship, the sort that aims to last, you’ve got to keep pushing on. That means the sex has to develop, and that means danger, pushing boundaries. For me, those boundaries are articulated in speech. Dirty, dirty speech. In “tower defense” I hoped to express that need to test your lover, especially when that lover is just so damned generous it’s unnerving.

DR: On your recommendation I found another poem of yours, “Mario in Koopaland circa Movember.” Why Mario?
JB: A couple summers back I was walking home from a friend’s in the rain, heavily influenced by this and that, and I had one of those “take a look at yourself” moments: I saw myself walking hurriedly, umbrella clutched, avoiding eye contact with the locals, and realized: what a two-dimensional character! I’d blown off my old Super Mario Bros. 3 cartridge recently and everything just fell into place. “Koopaland circa Movember” was written more recently, the last day of Movember 2010, when, after muttering to friends, “what fools these mustachioed jocks be,” I realized, what a snob I have become!
As for “why Mario? Why keep with him?”: ask a random twenty-something to name all seven of King Bowser’s “Koopa Kids” and you’ll probably get at least four. Ask that same person to name four Canadian poets writing today…well, let’s just say I’m happy to write “genius poems” that have a chance for broad appeal. There’s too much damned retreat-from-society ethos among poets. Let’s at least try to meet the masses halfway, eh?

DR: Are you working on a series of these poems?
JB: These poems aren’t all about me being a jerk, but there is definitely a theme of seeing oneself. My initial plan was to write eight solid poems, one for each of the “lands” of Mario 3: Grass Land, Desert Land, etc., ultimately ending in Dark Land. I’ve had trouble sticking to that, and now, once in a while, I write a Mario poem. A lot of my poems these days that have nothing to do with Mario begin as Mario poems; i.e., I try to express something using symbols and such from the mythology and eventually edit them out.

DR: What about the process of editing the work of other people makes it easier to write your own work? What makes it more difficult?
JB: I’ve only edited little magazines, like In/Words out of Carleton. What makes a little magazine, for me at least, is personal investment. I guess even newspaper editors of major dailies will write copy one way or another. Editing is, in a form, writing. If I edit your poem I am, in a way, writing a poem, using a palette you defined.
I rather believe [editing] makes writing more complex. Reading so many of my contemporaries is humbling and inspiring. When I suggest/order an edit, I make rules which I live by for a while and then discard.

DR: By your own admission you seem to be having trouble drumming up entries for The Moose and Pussy Short Story Contest. Let’s hear the elevator pitch.
JB: Online magazines, statistically speaking and rounded up, suck. When we had a print magazine we’d get a hundred people submitting for every issue. Online, it’s hard to distinguish yourself as widely read, while print magazines are given the benefit of the doubt (there’s concrete proof of readership). We only received a dozen or so submissions by our original deadline, and not one compared with the best stories we’d ever published. It wouldn’t be right to give fifty smackers for a story in a different universe than some of the classics in our back catalogue. That being said, please submit.

DR: Your website’s “About Us” section certainly leaves a lot to the imagination: “We are transforming. That sound you hear is a car part becoming a vulva.” Care to elaborate?
JB: We should probably update that. We used to put out a big ol’ print issue every four months. We’re reaching a lot more people as a web magazine. The occasional chapbook or broadside still gets made, but it was a lot of hassle to keep things fresh while worrying about layout, advertisers, launch parties, and the rest of the mess. The trouble now is keeping a strong amount of content and distinguishing TheMoose and Pussy from a million other online mags. Right now we’re just seeing, playing it by ear, and trying to avoid a concrete definition of The Moose and Pussy.

DR: Have you started planning out a Halloween costume?
JB: The wife and I might do a gender-bending The Monarch/Dr. Mrs. The Monarch.

DR: How is progress on “Oh, Thank Heavens I’m Back To My Old Self Again!” coming along?
JB: Odourless Press requested a sample of my Mario poems and just put them out under the title “Back To My Old Self” (you can hear me read the sextet on CKCU’s Literary Landscapes via Odourless). I’ve been too busy with school and work to focus on a larger manuscript, but I’m hoping this winter, once I’m done my graduate studies, to put a more regular focus on these poems. In the meanwhile, I’m going to try to get “Back To My Old Self” for sale on the counter at the new Chumleighs used games store that just opened here in Ottawa. I just sold them a pile of games so I think we’re on good terms.

DR:  Are you sending work out now? Poetry? Fiction?
JB:  Poetry mostly. Bit of a windfall right now. Going to be in Burner Magazine (online/Toronto) and Nōd (student print/Calgary) this fall as well. Waiting to hear back on a few others.

DR:  Fingers crossed.
JB:  This is the first year in my life I’ve actually made money off of poetry. (George Johnston Poetry Prize, second place; VERSeFest opening act).

DR:  How do you feel about fees for contest entries?
JB:  So it goes. I’ve never paid one. Actually, I tried once, but Arc never cashed my cheque, or, presumably, read my poem.

Jeff Blackman Jeff Blackman

Author
Jeff Blackman co-founded The Moose and Pussy, Canada’s premiere sex-lit mag, with his partner Kate Maxfield and award-winning writers Jeremy Hanson-Finger and Rachael Simpson. Jeff was recently featured by the In/Words reading series and VERSeFest, Ottawa’s multi-genre poetry bash. He’s been banging out poems about maturity and Super Mario Bros. 3 for a project tentatively titled, “Oh, Thank Heavens I’m Back To My Old Self Again!”

Dylan Riley in Conversation with John Barger

Dylan Riley: The first things that jump out from your bio are the divergent locations — but maybe that’s two questions. First, what’s Finland like? What brought, or continues to bring you, there?
John Barger: I fell in love with a Finnish woman! This summer we lived together in Tampere, in the south, for four months. The whole country is eerie and gorgeous. So much dark. So much light. We visited a birch forest in Lapland, in the Arctic Circle, with five others in a cabin beside a frozen lake. It took two days to heat it. We chopped a hole in the lake for water, cut wood, had saunas at night. One night there were northern lights that looked like green flamenco fingers. The eternals (Väinämöinen, the eternal singer) and demons (Hiisi, the goblin who drowns children in lakes) you read about seem very close up there.

DR: I’m from the Maritimes myself, and I noticed a bit of a pattern. Young people seem to move from an obscure, small, Maritime city to Halifax, then from Halifax on to Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver. How do you feel about this, and do you plan on living permanently in Halifax?
JB: I did that: moved to Vancouver at twenty. I love Halifax, but I’ve always felt separate from it. I’m envious of “regional” writers like Faulkner or Margaret Laurence, who can write about a community and have it stand for the world. I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere. My first book, Pain-proof Men, mostly takes place in Halifax, but my next book, Hummingbird, does not have a single poem set there.

DR: But do you feel regionalism can be a trap sometimes, that in a way you’re better off as a writer without it?
JB: Maybe it’s a case of the grass always being greener — because I lack it, I want it. But I love [Charles] Olson’s Maximus poems, and his connection with Gloucester, Massachusetts. It seems like knowing where you are from is a beginning point, rather than an end. Like, once you have place, then you can jump off into the cosmos. I know most of the world lacks this sense of place these days — I’m not unique for this.

DR: “Beautiful Rodney” strikes me as a prose poem. Is this a form you think highly of? One you use often?
JB: I don’t mind if it’s prose or not, if it works. I love some prose poems, like Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End. I like to try to disarm the reader by presenting an accessible (maybe non-academic?) voice and form and (sometimes) narrative. Then once you are inside the poem — feeling comfortable and at home — something shifts.

DR: I like that. Sometimes you do have to trick a reader into reading something.
JB: Do you know James Tate, the American poet?

DR:  I don’t, but fill me in.
JB:  I found reading him really liberating. Returnto the City of White Donkeys is an amazing book. He writes poems that don’t seem to worry about metaphors or line breaks, a bit like short stories, like micro-novels…you enter one of his poems, and feel lulled by the familiar voice, and then the scene shifts, like a dream. Like, you’re driving on the highway, getting sleepy, when the roadkill suddenly open their eyes, and you don’t know when it all changed.

DR: Do you have any new writing — or other projects — on the go?
JB: After visiting Cambodia this last winter and being blown away at the effects of the Khmer Rouge on that culture, I’ve been writing little hegemonic allegories, like dioramas of imaginary colonized villages. Truthfully, I don’t know how to write about the world falling apart without being zeitgeist or didactic or boring. A revolution seems to occur somewhere in the middle of each poem. At least one is called “Year Zero.”

DR: Are you following the Republican nomination?
JB: I would vote for Michele Bachmann as head of the Shark Eyes Coalition.

DR: Perry or Romney?
JB: I’ve wondered — why do people vote for Republicans? I mean regular, smart, non-rich people. Then it came to me: the Republicans are the fantasy party. We vote for them if we want to join in the fantasy that the American dream is still possible and relevant. That is, the illusion that we can all get as rich as Schwarzenegger; that consumerism works; that this democracy doesn’t guarantee a certain part of the population must be out of work and destitute; that the environment is not falling apart; that everything is all right.

DR: I guess we’ve lost your vote. But who are you reading right now?
JB: Joshua Trotter’s All This Could Be Yours, and Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People. The Best American Poetry 2011. And King Lear, to teach.

DR: What are you avoiding right now?
JB: I’m tempted to say I’ve been avoiding nothing, but the truth might be that I’ve been avoiding tranquility. I’ve been in a confrontational phase, as if I’m wearing a small sign around my neck saying, “LET’S FIGHT ABOUT BS!”

DR: What are you avoiding reading right now?
JB: Novels. DeLillo’s Underworld. The second book in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

DR: I know the feeling — I read the overture to Swann’s Way and now I talk about it like I’ve read the whole thing. Have you read much DeLillo, or any of the other postmodernists? Is this something that could come up later in your poetry?
JB: I think I’ve read every DeLillo besides Underworld. His characters sometimes have a kind of clairvoyance, or second sight, which is fascinating.
I’ve spent years trying to shake off the postmodern cleverness I learned at university. Now I think that a poem should involve heart, or empathy — not just speak in codes that only academics and other writers could understand.

DR:  How do you feel about David Foster Wallace? He seemed to genuinely try to bridge the postmodern cleverness/heart gap.
JB:  I’ll keep that in mind. I haven’t got to him yet. Although, Julian Barnes goes too far, I think. And Jeanette Winterson. John Fowles tries to bridge that gap, too. And Joyce tries, too. Proust is the shit.

DR:  I guess it’s a hard thing to do; to be honest but also keep up a self-reflexive stance.
JB:  I think the self-reflexiveness will not last — a footnote in 20th-century literature.

DR: Any final thoughts?
JB: If anyone is able to use the phrase, “Nights like this always make the neighbors come around,” in a poem, I’d be very grateful.

barger barger

Author
John Wall Barger’s second book, Hummingbird, is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in Spring 2012. Barger divides his year between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Tampere, Finland.