The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Zachariah Wells
This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.
Hello, Mr. Wells! As part of a school assignment, I’ve written out a few interview questions for you. I am very interested in the answers, as I have read several of your works! I know you had originally intended to have a dialogue with me during the interview, but because of time constraints, I’m not sure how that will work. I’d be glad to respond again to what you reply, if that is something you’d like for me to do! I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and look forward to seeing you on April sixth!
You have lived all over Canada, from PEI to Southern Ontario and the great white north. What was the allure of the “unsettled” northern territories as opposed to the big cities where you have lived (Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver, etc.) Which setting do you prefer and what sort of effect do those surroundings have on your work as an author? Is there anywhere else you would consider living or want to live?
None of my moves has really been the result of wanting to live in a place, so much as having a reason to go there. The allure of the north was, frankly, financial. I was a university student in need of a summer job that paid better than what was on offer in my home province of PEI. A high school friend of mine had worked a couple of summers in Iqaluit loading airplanes, so I contacted him to find out who I should talk to. I sent in an application, waited a couple of months, then called the manager of First Air’s cargo department repeatedly until he gave me a job. I only became attracted to the North as a place after I went there. I actually disliked it quite a bit at first.
I grew up in the country and am in many ways a country boy at heart, but I’m quite happy living in a medium-sized city like Halifax now. City life allows me to live without a car, have easy access to cultural events and institutions, etc., but Halifax is small enough that it isn’t alienating. When I was working in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, I lived at the airport, seven km from a town of about 200 people. On my weeks off, I lived in Montreal, where there would frequently be about 200 people on a single car of the metro. That I found alienating after the solitude of Resolute. It made me mildly agoraphobic.
Right now, having moved umpteen zillion times, I’d rather not think about living anywhere else! But I could see living in Toronto if I had a reason to move there.
You mentioned in a previous interview that poets John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Bishop, especially, meant a lot to you. How have these authors influenced your work, if at all? I’ve noticed the very uniquely tailored topics and style you use in your poems, such as in “Small Song of Wonders” and “Fool’s Errand.” Still, do you ever find yourself struggling to make your work unique and different from the poets who inspire or influence you?
Those poets have each influenced me in different ways. What they have in common is that they were all three very intense observers and reporters of the world around them. Each of them is a model for how hard you need to look at something if you hope to do it artistic justice. Hopkins more than the other two has had a profound influence on the rhythmic textures of my writing. Clare is a constant reminder of the value of simple, direct statement and of the vivifying potential of local vernaculars. Bishop’s work is a master class in how to be simple and subtle at the same time.
I’m writing these answers at a desk in my publisher’s office. Right in front of me, tacked to the wall, is a quote from Jim Jarmusch, the film director. It’s worth quoting in response to your question:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.
I chuckled when I read this, because I have the feeling Jarmusch stole it from W.H. Auden, who made remarks to the same effect. I quoted them recently in a guest post at the Best Canadian Poetry site:
A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more important. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine original talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying something original ; his attitude is that of the old lady, quoted by E.M. Forster — “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” It is only later, when he has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his entire devotion to his Muse.
Like Jarmusch, Auden stressed authenticity over originality. If you try too hard to be original, what usually results is novelty. And novelty wears off pretty quickly, leaving very little behind. So no, originality isn’t something I worry about at all. Influence is only a problem when it comes from too few sources. Read widely and immerse yourself in the world around you and in the particular formal and linguistic problems and resources of poetry and the problem disappears.
I wanted to ask you about your poem: “Address to a Common Octopus.” I found it entertaining, to say the least! What caused you to write it? I’ve seen on your blog in another interview you did a week or two ago that you don’t plan out the poems you are going to write, and so it is often more of a challenge to create a collection of poetry because of a common element that is needed to tie it together, rather than difficulties emerging from lack of inspiration. How did “Address to a Common Octopus” fit in to the works around it in Ludicrous Parole? Do you have many poems remaining that you haven’t quite been able to fit into any of your earlier compilations? What were their themes/topics?
I can’t remember what precisely led me to write the octopus poem. I think it might have been a Discovery channel show about them or something like that, which then prompted me to read up on them. The reading would have turned up some neat images and phrases, which would have started suggesting to me a tone and structure for the poem. Something like that.
Ludicrous Parole was a hodge-podge gathering of poems that were united by the idea of “voice.” “Parole” is the French word for speech and the root-word of “ludicrous” is “ludic,” which means playful. So the book is full of playful speech: dramatic monologues and addresses to things or creatures, such as the octopus.
When I assembled Unsettled, I left out lots of poems that weren’t directly concerned with the North. Likewise, in all subsequent collections, I’ve included only pieces that seemed to fit together. One poem from Unsettled, “A Whiff of Mussel Mud,” reappears in Track & Trace, in an edited version. I did this in part because I wasn’t happy with the original version any more, but principally because the poem fit in both books. My next book will have a couple of things in it that overlap with previous books.
I’m an obsessive guy, so even without intending it, I seem to write in veins of material. Assembling the material isn’t so much the challenge as recognizing what the vein is and when it’s tapped out.
So yes, I have reams of yet-to-be collected poems sitting around. I’m actually working on a collection right now that is a kind of extension of the work in Ludicrous Parole, but rather than “speech” being the common denominator, it’s the idea of selfhood, which I’m very interested in as an artistic and neurological phenomenon. It’s a pretty broad umbrella, so it’s allowing me to assemble poems together than might appear to have very little in common. Which is exciting. I’ve done two quite tightly focused books, so I’m looking forward to publishing one that explodes whatever conceptions people might have about my work.
Anything but Hank is the only children’s book you have published. From what I’ve observed, your general style is very different from the ordered verse and light theme in the children’s book. So why and how did you decide to write it? What difficulties did you encounter in the process, both in terms of the work itself and the gearshift into this new style of writing?
First of all, I didn’t write ABH alone. My wife and I wrote it together. (And if you think it’s different from my style, you should check out Rachel’s other book!) She would write two lines and then it was my job to rhyme them. It was a blast to do and the form of the writing dictated the content. We had no idea setting out where the story would go. There was the odd hiccup along the way, where we wouldn’t agree on the lines the other person wrote or something like that, but it really went smoothly for the most part. We wrote it originally as a private gift for a nephew; publication happened almost by accident.
You’ve had many jobs over the years: author, editor, security guard, bartender even ice-cream man! Which have you enjoyed the most? During the years you wrote your first full-length collection of poetry, Unsettled, you worked as a cargo handler in Iqaluit and Resolute Bay. The experience found its way into the collection many times. What made you stick to this job for so many years? What was the best part of the job? How did working there overlap with your writing? Did poetry help you get through the grueling hours? Or did you enjoy the cargo work?
I’ve liked and hated different things about all my jobs; hard to say what I’ve liked most. The ice cream job, which I did during five summers of my teen years, was probably the hardest I’ve ever done, actually. It was physically exhausting, required constant contact with the public and was very poorly paid.
The cargo job was a make or break kind of thing. The constant exercise meant I was in incredible shape. A massage therapist working on my back once asked me, “What the hell do you do? Your traps [trapezius muscles] are huge!” But I also injured my back quite badly a couple of times.
A lot of the work consisted of stacking one thing on top of another, over and over. I’ve always loved that kind of mindless automatic work, as I love walking, because it allows the mind to wander in ways it couldn’t otherwise. The act of stacking seemed to beget poems, which are themselves stacks of words. The first poem in Unsettled deals with that connection explicitly. Language for me is an almost tactile medium. I love the physical shape of words, both as signs on the page and as sounds in the mouth and ear.
Also, I like the way that physical work forces me out of my natural habits and habitat. I’ve always been solitary and sedentary, intellectual and impractical by inclination. The cargo work was social and active; it was physical and involved very practical problem solving. I think you have to challenge yourself in life and the job was so far from my paths of least resistance that becoming adept at it, mastering its many skills, in many ways is more of a source of pride than the fact that I’ve written some good poems. I just loved the fact that I could operate a huge diesel forklift skillfully in proximity to fragile, expensive aircraft. When I started working in Iqaluit, I was the skinny college kid. When I left there, seven years later, I was running the cargo department in Resolute Bay. That was huge for me. I’m sure in the minds of my co-workers, when they first saw me they probably thought I wouldn’t be able to hack it.
You’ve dipped into many different styles of writing: poetry, children’s verse, editing and critiquing, translation and more! What is next for you? Do you think you will continue to broaden your anthology of published work by continuing to explore different styles of writing? What new types of projects would you like to try?
I never know what’s next, but I have very little interest in repeating something I’ve already done. I’m a restless guy. Right now I’m thinking I might try to become a locomotive engineer. Seriously!