Friday, November 15, 2013

Interview Sessions: Volume 5.4

Meet Andrew Faulkner.

If you happen to find yourself in Marmora, Ontario sometime soon, and if you happen to have already frequented the numerous tourist attractions (including, but not limited to: the Marmora mine, Marmora SnoFest, and two annual country jamborees), and if you happen to start hungering, in a mental/emotional state that is, for a little something-something to take the edge off -- you know, something poetic... well, you may very well be in luck. 

Why? Because Andrew Faulkner, the poet behind the 2009 bpNichol chapbook award-shortlisted Useful Knots and How to Tie Them, and the new full-length collection Need Machine makes up one half (the other half being his partner, fellow writer Leigh Nash) of Marmora, Ontario's newest residents (1) & (2).

Now, we are not telling you to seek him out and knock on his door or anything, no matter where you are. Don't be a weirdo. But -- hopefully the relocation of one of Canada's most dynamic young poets to the small community will inspire at least a few of the local shops to carry his work, thus allowing you to buy it (if, for some reason, you haven't already). And then, if you see him out walking the dog or buying whiskey or whatever it is that poets do in their spare time, he'll sign it for you. And that alone would be worth the trip. 

Maybe it's all this talk of small towns, but we can't help but feel that Andrew's poetry is like great diner food: like the best diner food, something about the work feels so effortless, so unpretentious. Tucking into Andrew's work (we have Useful Knots at our elbows right now, in fact) is refreshing and filling all at once; soul food for the poetic palate. Of course, again like diner food, no matter how simple it may seem, the second you bust out the griddle and spatula at home, you quickly realize that there are so many elements of the experience which you simply can't replicate. There's a science to it, or maybe more accurately a sort of magic somehow ("science" seems to fall short of doing the spirit of the thing justice), that keeps you coming back for more. Andrew's work is not difficult to read (it is a pleasure, in fact) -- but it is difficult not to read again and again and again. 

When he's not writing poetry or following baseball, Andrew co-curates (again, with partner Leigh Nash) The Emergency Response Unit, a small chapbook press, which has published chapbooks from over a dozen up-and-coming writers. Andrew managed to find a little time between everything else to answer a few questions for us about his poetry, The Emergency Response Unit, and why we all need to take a little time to better understand our cell phone providers. Read the interview below. 

(1) Don't quote us precisely on "newest." We're bloggers, not census-takers. 
(2) If you're interested in learning more about the marvels and wonders of living in Marmora, you can find the Drafty Farmhouse blog here.


1) Just to get us warmed up, let’s start this interview off with a perennial Ruckus favourite: For someone who’s never experienced your work before, how would you describe it? (Bonus points if you can also describe your writing for us as a dish that would be found on the menu of a fancy bistro.)
I will close my eyes and shoot blindly for bonus points: My work is slightly kitschy, a little discordant, and winking at itself on the menu, but relatively standard fare nonetheless (after all, they’re just poems) – so, something like a handmade veggie burger ordered from a throwback 50s diner where the wait staff wear roller skates and everyone wants to pay their bill with their MasterCard.

2) Andrew, we have to admit - you’ve done quite a few excellent interviews, with some excellent interviewers (including Rob Mclennan and The Toronto Quarterly), to the extent that most of the go-to questions that we have in our back pocket have already been eloquently answered elsewhere. We know about what you would be doing if you weren’t busy poem-ing (either a left-handed relief pitcher or an insurance salesman), what you believe makes a great poem (an attentive and sympathetic reader, above all else), and we’ve had your self-described “flaky” take on what you hope people will be taking away from your latest collection, Need Machine (in the form of a poem entitled “Hot Mess,” no less).
So, the first thing that comes to mind to ask you is: are there any questions that you’ve been hopefully waiting for an interviewer to ask you? Are there elements of your work which you feel are too often overlooked? Alternately, casting aside humility for a moment, in which area of your craft do you feel you are strongest?
A meta-question! That’s awesome. There are no answers to unasked questions that I’ve been pining to blurt out. But in thinking about the handful of reviews and verbal feedback I’ve received, I’ve been surprised at the extent to which the pop cultural and sometimes sarcastic/glib tone have been seen to dominate the book. But then, having stared so closely at the book for so long I likely have the worst perspective on it of anyone.

2) You’ve met with a great deal of success in the past few years. From being included in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 to having your first full-length collection of poems (the aforementioned Need Machine) released with Coach House Books this year, it seems like everything is coming along very nicely for you. We’re curious: was there a specific moment in which you began to feel successful, or is that a feeling you’re still chasing? What do you think constitutes “making it” as a poet?
It’s kind of you to suggest that I’ve had my share of success; it certainly doesn’t feel like it. There have been some glowy moments, such as when someone I respect says something nice about the book, but overall I don’t feel successful. Partly, that’s because the process is such a long one – you maybe have some poems show up in journals, and then you wring your hands over the manuscript, and you get your manuscript accepted but you fret over changes to the book, and then the book appears and you sit at home and worry as it drifts through a series of warehouses and out into the world. And that’s all over a span of, what, half a decade? And all for sixty or so pages of poems. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, but it feels so small and so contingent. If I have sympathetic readers on juries then maybe I win some prizes and I’m a Success! But maybe if I had less sympathetic readers working at journals then maybe I don’t ever have poems appear anywhere.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think the safest thing for me (and this is something it’s taken me a long time to determine, and I still struggle to come to terms with it) is to focus on reading and writing and the other things I do. The rest will take care of itself, or it won’t.

3) You’ve also made the jump into chapbook publishing - in 2008, with Leigh Nash, you founded The Emergency Response Unit, a small chapbook press located in Toronto. What inspired you to make that move, and how has the day-to-day reality of having a hand in TERU influenced your approach to poetry, if at all?
Leigh and I had been talking about making chapbooks for a while – and she had just discovered Greenboathouse Press’s stunning books – and thought we’d like to try our hand at it. And then I came into enough money from a small academic prize that we could do a print run of several titles without taking a significant hit to the wallet.

Making books – the act of literally putting words on a page – has given me a much different understanding of the length of a line, how many lines fit on a page, and how stanzas might end up breaking in half when split onto two pages. Whether that’s ended up being useful or not, though, I don’t know.

4) What has the proudest moment been for you so far as co-founder of The Emergency Response Unit? Have there been unexpected benefits or challenges?

We couldn’t produce a TERU highlight reel without including the chapbook we did of David Antin’s “What It Means to be Avant-garde”. We made it for an event he was doing at the Scream Literary Festival (RIP), the deadline was rather tight and we only had a print copy of the essay’s original publication to work from. The lines are a little all over the place on the page, so I had to re-type the essay and then try to get as close as I could to the original typesetting.

I think we did a pretty good job of it, except I later learned that where the essay mentioned Harold Bloom I’d accidentally typed “Harold Blood”. Antin was the one who discovered the typo, but he refused to tell us about it because he didn’t want to discourage us. We corrected the typo when we reprinted it, but for a while kicked around the idea of creating a long poem-like errata slip: “For Blood, read Bloom/ For avant-garde, read at the mall/ For….” (Though, now that I read that over, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea…. and doesn’t Kevil Connolly already have a poem like that? In drift, maybe?)

The challenge is to keep it up. We’ve got several good manuscripts that we struggle to have enough time and money and energy to turn into chapbooks (though in Leigh’s defense, it’s me who’s the foot-dragger). I am endlessly impressed with the arts-workers who are able to constantly keep the machines running and the lights on.
5) Coming back to your work for a moment, you’ve gathered a reputation for a poet with a finger on the pulse of popular culture - is there, or has there been, any particular event/person which has particularly stood out to you and inspired work? What was it, and why do you think it resonated with you?
There hasn’t been, no – and I think that maybe at the core of contemporary popular culture there is the fact that there’s no core. There are so many big figures, events, memes, platforms, etc., and there is the feeling that no matter where you look, there’s always something happening in the periphery. There’s simply too much to pin down. So you end up with an image of popular culture that looks like it was produced in a photo booth with too many bodies jammed into it – everything is blurry and in the foreground. The challenge is how to make real sense of it.

6) To wrap up the longer questions: Give us a pairing of one of your favourite authors and one of your favourite beverages (alcoholic or not). Why do they go together?
Al Purdy and flat beer, on account of this:
Gertrude Stein and enough coffee to give you serious jitters, on account of try it and you’ll see.

1) Desert island novel: Don DeLillo’s Underworld, probably.

2) Best restaurant in Toronto: The best pizza place is Buddha Pie. That’s close enough to count as a restaurant, right?

3) Least favourite thing about your cell phone provider:The things I dislike about my cell phone provider are the same things that I find frustrating with most other large companies. What I want from them is simple – in the case of Fido, I want to be able to reliably make phone calls, I want to only be billed for the services I feel I’ve used, and I want their services to be reasonably priced. Is that so much to ask? Actually, probably, yeah. Because I always forget how massive of a system it is. And of course in a system as large as Rogers Communications, there are bound to be mistakes, like a call gets dropped, or charges appear on my bill by mistake and so on. You can’t handle that many customers and having that many moving parts without some errors getting made.

And when I call Fido’s customer service number to deal with it, I have to wait for a really long time to speak to someone, because of course there are other people calling to resolve other mistakes. And the CSR who answers the phone, who’s getting paid borderline minimum wage and has been listening to people like me bitch about their bill or whatever for hours, is understandably numb to my individual frustrations. And their hands, I’m sure, are tied as to what they can do to resolve it. I could demand to speak to a manager but by the time I get to speak to someone a little higher up on the corporate payscale, I’ll have ended up spending close to half an hour idly on the phone solely to have the opportunity to speak to someone who is paid to be a professional asshole. Or worse, someone who has been meticulously trained to provide just enough compensation to stop me from cancelling my account, but not enough to resolve that frustrated feeling that’s lodged itself behind my eyeballs. So at the end of it all, I maybe have the errant charge removed from my bill but my sense of low-level irritation is still there. And after a while, that irritation becomes chronic. And this is generally what bothers us, and why no one ever has nice things to say about phone companies or Internet service providers or newspaper publishers or public transit operations.

But then, nothing is ever a completely impersonal system. We just moved and when we needed to set up Internet at our new place, the Bell technician showed up at 7:30 am (which was frustrating in its own right, because we were told he wouldn’t arrive until 9am at the very earliest by the person who booked the appointment – this is one of those inevitable errors I was talking about – and we woke up to him pounding at the door). We were clearly the first stop in his day because we lived between his house and the Bell location he works from – this means he’s someone in my neighbourhood, and at some point he and I will be in the same lineup at the grocery store or waiting at the doctor’s office to have the same medical practitioner diagnose our maladies – and he was friendly and chatty. He told us a story about his son’s place in Brockville. Which is all to say that he’s a regular person. But I’m not supposed to like him because on some level he’s just a temporary extrusion of The Big Bad Bell System. But, y’know, he’s also a person, which hurts the brain to sort out how I should feel about everything, because it’s not like I can just like him but hate his company, as Bell helped him put his kid through college so that his son could grow up and buy a house outside of Ottawa.

And so when people say that poems aren’t very useful because they don’t provide answers to anything I think of issues like this and realize that I (and I can only imagine that this goes for others as well) don’t need more answers to things. What I need is help sorting out how I should understand and feel about cell phone providers.
4) An animal you’ve always wished you could have as a pet:All the cats.

5) A colour you would never paint your living room:My living room is currently covered in wallpaper that’s been painted a dull pink, and it’s exactly as awful as it sounds. We can’t change it fast enough.

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