FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Where were you born and raised?
Born March 12, 1951, Santa Cruz, California (of Canadian parents.) I am a fourth generation Vancouver Islander. I grew up near Victoria, British Columbia, in a cottage we called The Vinegar Jug, after the Grimm's fairy tale.
What did you like doing as a child?
Being alone. Reading. Playing with my imaginary friends and my imaginary horses.
What was your favourite book when you were a child?
Pookie Puts the World Right - about a rabbit with wings who is kicked out of the bunny warren because he is different. I identified.
Did your parents encourage you to write?
Yes and no. My father read to me every night, but when I got older and started writing poetry it was seen as a subversive act and I felt highly disapproved of. Which is why I kept doing it, of course.
Did you have a teacher who encouraged you?
Teachers played an important role in my development as a writer. When I was in kindergarten I had once been sent out of the classroom for the crime of laughing (my friend tickled me), to sit it out on "The Thinking Chair". In Grade 3 I kicked an apple core in line and spent my detention in the library. The message I got throughout my formative years? "Thinking is bad. So are books."
I started writing when I was in the fourth grade. Horse stories with tragic endings. I set my tales in Ireland and all my characters spoke with a brogue - because my teacher, Peter Seale, was Irish, and handsome, and I was secretly in love with him. I wrote epics for him, because I just knew he had nothing better to do in his life than go home after school and read my tragedies while his wife peeled potatoes. I admired him, too, because he was a rebel: he didn't "follow the curriculum" as some parents complained, and he let me spend the whole day writing my compositions because, he said, "that's what you're good at."
Why did you start writing poetry?
When I was older I started listening to Bob Dylan, and that's when I began writing poetry, partly because I was so bored at school. Poetry was a kind of rebellious act. It was a way for me to channel anger, grief, sadness, confusion - and still is.
What were your early themes?
I was a romantic. I wrote poems set in ghettos in Chicago, odes to drowned cigarette butts in cups of cold coffee. I called my poems "Ode to Existence" and "Futility #16 in Blue". I wrote poems full of words I couldn't pronounce - "Evolutionary Obsequies," for example. The poem itself rolled off the tongue a bit more easily. "Life is like a candle. Blow it and it's gone."
What was your first success as a writer?
In Grade 8 I began forging notes from my parents demanding I be released from all forms of Physical Education, especially gymnastics. My forgeries were so successful that the word got around, and soon everyone was paying me to excuse them from Math, Science, English, and, especially, gymnastics. I made enough money to invest in a shipment of Orange Barrel Acid, which I planned to sell to my friends who skipped school in the hopes of finding a less excruciatingly boring way to waste a Spring afternoon.
What was the first prize for writing you ever won?
In Grade 8 I penned a series of rhyming couplets about Jackie Kennedy visiting JFK's grave by moonlight, and won a prize. I was awarded with a copy of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing . I've always wondered if the teacher who chose this book was the same one who taught us about irony.
How did you first get published?
I had just celebrated my sixteenth birthday - locked in Room 0 of the psychiatric wing at a Victoria hospital (I had a nervous breakdown after dropping too much of the LSD I'd decided not to sell to my friends) - when Robin Skelton, a poet and creative writing teacher at the University of Victoria, came to visit me; he had met my psychiatrist at a cocktail party. Previously, I had babysat his three young children, but we had spoken only casually. I remember being in awe of his house because there was art, modern art on the walls, and books everywhere. At least thirty of the books were ones Robin himself had written. I remember touching them, as if some of their magic might rub off.
At the hospital Robin asked to see some of my work. After reading a handful of my poems, he told me, "You're not mad, you're a poet." He published six of those early poems in The Malahat Review , and with my $100 earnings I bought my first typewriter. Subsequently he insisted that he simply pointed me in the direction my life was meant to be taking.
How do you know when you are ready to publish your work?
I have never reached a point where I felt I was "good enough to be published". I have just always written. Robin Skelton told me to start sending my work out to other literary magazines, which I did. He said as a writer you have to get used to rejection. Five of the seven magazines I submitted to accepted poems. This seemed to me like some kind of miracle!
I still question whether my poems are "good enough". I hope I always do. (I can only make each one as good as it can be for what it is. I try not to compare myself to other writers, but often when I find a poet I think is "great", I am intimidated enough to stop writing poetry for a while. If I were a wholly strong, secure person, I probably wouldn't write!)
When was your first book published?
Songs of the Sea Witch was published in 1970 by Sono Nis Press. I was 19. I sent a copy to my grandfather, who had read the Classics at Oxford. He wrote back to me, "Even Shakespeare had to write a lot of rubbish to begin with." A backhanded, but very high, compliment.
How do you work?
I like to have the house to myself. I can't stand noise - a clock ticking or a dog barking next door.
Do you write in longhand or on the computer?
I write poems longhand in pen or pencil. I type second drafts (I do up to 100 drafts sometimes) on a computer. Journalism and fiction I often type directly onto the computer.
Is your work autobiographical?
Some of my poems are "autobiographical" and in others the "I" is a personae. Most of them have parts that are "made up". By the time I finish a poem it has become more real than the event, situation or person that sparked it! That is, the poem is a truth in itself, regardless of the "real" truth.
Who are your influences?
These change all the time. I've loved and been influenced by Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Stevie Smith, Tom Wayman, Al Purdy, Patrick Lane, Stephen Dobyns, Sharon Olds, George MacBeth, Brian Patten, to name a few. Paul Durcan, Tell Gallagher, Ai, Norman Dubie, Lorna Crozier, Anne Sexton.......
I draw my inspiration from what I read, from my personal experiences, from my dreams, from travelling, from love, death, loss, grief, my kids - you name it. I get ideas from stories people tell me, things I overhear on a crowded streetcar. From everything all around me.
Which of your books means the most to you?
The poem or novel I am working on at the moment is what means most to me. The one I'm struggling with. Books that are published, strangely, have very little meaning to me. I check to see if my name is spelled right on the cover, that sort of thing. I like the feel and the look of a book that's been produced well. But the content? It's almost as if someone else has written it.
After I finish a novel I don't usually read it for four or five years. Then I can be objective about it. My favourite books of my own poetry are A Man to Marry, a Man to Bury, and Things That Keep and Do Not Change. I am also fond of You're in Canada Now, A Memoir of Sorts, " a collection of my literary non-fiction (2005). And my favourite novel, other than the one I'm struggling with at any given moment, is my most recently published: Cargo of Orchids.
Do you base the characters in your novels on real people?
Characters evolve the longer you live with them. They may start out based on real people but they turn into their own selves with their own lives after awhile. Real people are too complex to be rendered into characters in books!
Do you enjoy reading your work in public?
Sure, I enjoy performing. But most of all I like being alone, writing. I think it's good to have the contrast. If I never left my office I'd get bored, and if I was always appearing in public I'd hate it.
Where have you lived?
In Hawaii (as a child), the west of Ireland, England, Panama, Colombia, and the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii).
Where do you live now?
I spend half my time on Vancouver Island, the other half on Haida Gwaii. On Vancouver Island I live in The Treehouse, which was built by a poet in 1928, around a 400-year-old, 200-foot-tall Douglas fir tree, which still grows through the middle of it. On Haida Gwaii I live on the Sangan River, near Masset, in a seven-sided house designed by my partner, Stephen Reid.
How did you meet Stephen Reid?
In the fall of 1984, when I was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Waterloo, I received a manuscript from a convicted bank robber. I read the manuscript and fell in love with the novel's protagonist. I began to correspond with Stephen Reid, who wrote the book, while he was serving a twenty-year sentence for a gold heist in Ottawa. I worked as his editor, and his novel, Jackrabbit Parole was published in 1986, the same year we were married in a maximum security prison. Stephen was released on full parole in June of 1987. In 1999, addicted to heroin and cocaine, he robbed a bank and was sentenced to 18 years.
Do you have children? Other family?
I have two daughters, Charlotte (born 1982) and Sophie (1989).
My father, Edward, died in 1985. I have an amazing mother, Judy (we travel to Ireland together every year) and two brothers, Robert and Tony, and a sister, Mary. Patrick Musgrave, my nephew, designed this website for me. Charlotte, my daughter, took the photographs on Haida Gwaii in the summer of 2006.
What are your goals?
I have none. I like to quote the Hindu saying: "Keep your eye on the fire at the beginning and have no destination." I hope each book I write is a little better than the last, that I have learned something in the process of reading and writing over the years. I write because I love the process, not for fame or money. I make a good living from writing but I have to do about ten jobs - editing, teaching, giving readings and speeches, judging contests, etc. My actual income from the writing itself is very small.
Plans for the future?
I don't make plans. The future comes soon enough.
TO POETS WHO SEND ME THEIR POETRY ASKING, "IS THIS ANY GOOD?"
Is it any good? That is NOT the question to ask!
The question is, to yourself, or whoever wrote the poem: did it mean something to you to write this? Did it make the world start making more sense? Did it make you feel a) good b) better c) less lonely d) less afraid?
That's what poetry, for me, is all about. Not making judgments (which, by the way, anyone can do. Our culture teaches us to judge. To compete.) "You ask what life is," Chekhov said, "that's like asking what a carrot is. A carrot is a carrot, there's nothing more to say."
Except perhaps to quote the Irish proverb: Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot. The same applies to writing."
TO THE STUDENT WHO WROTE ASKING..."WHY POEMS?"
Good question. Poems are not for everyone (just as life isn't) (There's a joke: a psychiatrist saying to his client, "Face it, Bill. Life may not be for everyone.")
A lot of our society's resistance to poetry starts at school: we study "great" poems of tradition and sense the immortal poet's superiority to us ordinary folk; we are taught that poetry is lofty and full of hidden meaning, and often feel inadequate for being unable to break the secret code. But the really important thing is to find poems that matter to us - good, great, bad or ugly. Poems that bring us into the "common fold", even if the common fold is a place where we may not feel comfortable or secure.
Not long ago the editor of the Op-Ed page of a Toronto newspaper commissioned me to write a poem. I wrote a parody of Wallace Steven's "Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird" and called it "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Canadian Unity." The editor got back to me on Friday, asking for the weekend "to think it over." I'm not a very poetic kind of guy," he said.
The word "poetic" is one we all use; I'm not really sure what it means, though often it has a pejorative sense. Why is it that so many people seem to feel apologetic when the subject of poetry is raised? It's as if the mere mention of the word makes them feel inferior.
"The majority of civilized mankind do not possess the organ by which poetry is perceived," A.E. Housman wrote, in his inspirational essay, The Name and Nature of Poetry. "Can you hear the shriek of the bat? Probably not, but do you think less of yourself on that account? Why be unwilling to admit that perhaps you cannot perceive poetry? Is it an unbearable thing, and crushing to self-conceit, to be in the majority?"
Frequently I am confronted by people who say they do not understand, the *meaning* of a poem. Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out. "Poetry," said Coleridge, "gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood. Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure."
Meaning is of the intellect; poetry is more physical. Most of us have read a poem that has made the hair on the back of our necks stand up: we may have asked ourselves, "Why have mere words had such a physical effect?" The answer, wrote Housman, "is because these words are poetry, and find their way to something in us which is obscure and latent, something older than the present organization of our nature."
SOME OF MY POEMS HAVE BEEN ANTHOLOGIZED. OFTEN I AM ASKED TO HELP STUDENTS WHO ARE IN THE UNENVIABLE POSITION OF HAVING TO WRITE PAPERS FOR EXAMS ON "WHAT MY POETRY MEANS", OR TO DO A PROJECT ON MY WORK.
HERE IS MY RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS ABOUT MY POEM, "I AM NOT A CONSPIRACY, EVERYTHING IS NOT PARANOID, THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION IS NOT EVERYWHERE."
I gave a reading at a school and got one of my best "reviews" ever from a student: "Your poems made me hate poetry a whole lot less!"
When I was at school we used to have to memorize poems for punishments (detentions). It's amazing that anyone graduated caring anything about poetry at all. (I quit school in Grade 10). There's nothing more killing than having a subject (like poetry) "forced" upon you. I believe poetry should *matter* to you, to your life, make you feel less alone and less confused by the enormous tragedies of twentieth century life.
Okay, my poem. In the early 80s I ran off with a marijuana smuggler and lived in South America (he is now retired, a Born Again Christian living in Los Angeles) On our way back to Canada we spent time in Mexico City, where I really did see purses in the market made of unborn calf skin. I also bought a pair of cobra high heels shoes, which I thought (at the time) very exotic.
We had also been in Costa Rica where there are many Drug Enforcement Agents - they are easily recognizable because they wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts, blue jeans, Levis belts with big silver buckles, mirrored sunglasses, and guns in shoulder holsters.
In 1983 I took a job as Writer in Residence at the University of Waterloo. I rented a 50-acre farm near Elora, Ontario. Cornfields, cows, etc. Paul Orenstein, a Toronto photographer, came to take my picture for a show of Canadian Authors he was putting together. I was used to being photographed on the west coast - with solid rock walls behind me - so to stand in a cornfield and hear all that rustling! - was a bit scary. That's how "corn" came in to the poem.
You can see how all these images came together - a lot of them drawn from my own experience and then used to create a kind of fantasy.
I had also been doing a lot of "border crossings" and of course these are fraught with peril. Even when you are an innocent citizen (in South America) you can be interrogated, or X-rayed, or anything they like. My husband (former) always seemed to be under surveillance, which is probably why I felt I was being followed.
I don't go out of my way to be symbolic in poems, but words are often symbolic of their own accord (such as the word "corn", which reminds us of fertility, etc.)