Alex Boyd answers rob mclennan's questions

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Alex Boyd answers rob mclennan's questions

By rob mclennan

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan is now working on the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent interview with Alex Boyd.

Alex Boyd lives in Toronto. He writes poems, fiction, reviews and essays, and has had work published in magazines and newspapers such as Taddle Creek, dig, Books in Canada, The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, The Antigonish Review and on websites such as The Danforth Review and Nthposition. He booked and hosted the I.V. lounge reading series for five years, and edits the online journal Northern Poetry Review. His personal site is alexboyd.com, and his award-winning first book of poems Making Bones Walk was published in 2007.

RM:

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

AB:

After writing poems for over ten years, it was tremendous relief to get a chunk of it off my computer, and into people’s hands, with Making Bones Walk. The new stuff compares to the old stuff in that I still favour purpose and clarity, and differs in that it’s getting a little nuttier. There was a little of that in the first book, in poems like “Bride of Frankenstein”, but there will be more in the second – expect poems about George Orwell robots.

RM:

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

AB:

I like the directness of poetry, and that unlike fiction it doesn’t require constructing a whole plot to get your point across. At the same time, I do recommend writing personal essays and fiction to poets, so they don’t necessarily feel the need to make their poetry overly autobiographical, and they can exist in their poems a little more indirectly.

RM:

3 - Where does 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?

AB:

It usually just begins with a phrase or image that I find striking somehow, and I think I can build a poem around it, provided it also contains an interesting enough idea. I recently remembered my father watching a bunch of American singers and when they announced themselves as “The Voices of Liberty,” he looked at me and said, “I knew it.” That could easily be the start of a poem about the difference between Canadians and Americans, even if it eventually doesn’t end up in the poem. As much as I try and bundle poems together thematically at times, they tend to be stand-alone pieces. I still find the idea of later trying to force them into a collection under one particular theme to be an extremely awkward one.

RM:

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

AB:

I enjoy doing readings, and I’m comfortable, but think it’s essential writers are never up there too long. There seems to be a perception you should take your time and really get your point across, when really I think writers just drive their audience nuts. A reading is the literary equivalent of an appearance on The Tonight Show to plug a film – it’s just a matter of being pleasant and brief and making it clear what you’ve produced.

RM:

5 – 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?

AB:

More than ever, I think writers need to be concise, fresh, engaging and articulate if we’re going to help maintain a fairly literate culture. Honestly, I look at both fiction and poetry book titles that are some kind of overly dreamy poetic knot and wonder how they can possibly be crossing their fingers and hoping for wide appeal. There’s this perception literature needs to be somehow dense and finally rewarding (or not much fun but good for you, like eating vegetables) when it can be light on its feet and rewarding. All the fiction I read lately is stuff like Disgrace by Coetzee, or A Week of This by Nathan Whitlock, because at least I can be confident it will feel like it’s about real people. And Orwell of course, I never leave him behind.

RM:

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

AB:

An editor is a friend that helps you see what’s wrong with your work. The best ones are both sharp-eyed and diplomatic, and recognize when they’re tempted to request you change something because of their own personal taste.

RM:

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

AB:

The humble improve, which was on the side of a Starbucks coffee cup!

RM:

8 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

AB:

I think poets do have stories to tell, and needn’t necessarily tell them in poetry. Clearly narrative still appeals to people, as a way to communicate stories and morals. I think it’s hard for poets to write fiction, we’re often so used to moving painstakingly slowly. My novel took something like ten years, though that time includes putting it aside once in a while. So it certainly isn’t easy to switch formats, but I do think they all have their uses, and the format should suit the content.

RM:

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

AB:

I just tend to read more, and that’s always inspirational. Reading essays often makes me want to write one, if they’re articulate and accessible at the same time. But generally if I’m not putting out much material I just try to take it in for a while, and trust that more material will slowly assemble itself through lived experience. It’s hard to wait, but nobody can produce for an entire lifetime, you have to have periods where you’re taking in experience.

RM:

10 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

AB:

I actually think I like the idea of doing one of everything – a book of essays, and different kinds of fiction, aside from more poems. I’m sure the different genres present different challenges. I’d love to direct a film and have control over a series of images because I’m very visual, but don’t have the patience to try and beg, borrow or steal the tools, or the patience for a long collaborative process. I once read a Michael Ondaatje interview where he said writing was the “arena” that works best for him, and in terms of control, I agree it’s best. At the same time, if someone wants to give me the millions I’ll go out and make the first Canadian superhero movie.

RM:

11 - 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?

AB:

I considered being an actor and was in an amateur theatre group at one point – and I actually went to school for radio, but had Wayson Choy as an English instructor and it made me realize I was bored with studying radio most of the rest of the day. Plus, my radio instructors were all cheesy and treated conversation like it was airtime and you had to fill up every second. I decided I was young an impressionable and dropped out, in favour of university. In short, if writing had never occurred to me I’d be in broadcasting or working as an actor or director. I’m still a little tempted by a career in politics. I like the idea of trying to help people, and the frustrating thing about being a writer is you feel like the eternal observer. That finally changed a little with my participation in Best Canadian Essays, as these are essays that will do some good if people get their hands on the book and read it – and that’s aside from the fact that they’re examples of great writing.

RM:

12 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

AB:

I think acting and voice work ultimately fell by the wayside for me because I use an internal frame of reference. I’m in my own head a lot, and that sort of personality doesn’t loan itself to acting well, or at least it doesn’t need to act. And that’s no criticism of actors, different things work for different people. I sometimes wonder if this is something a lot of writers have in common – the love of an ongoing internal process. And with poets, that’s combined with an interest in sound, an interest in making it concise and direct, and moving on.

Photo of Alex Boyd by Derek Wuenschirs.

1 comment

Thanks for an informative interview.

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