Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Matt Rader

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Matt Rader

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.

Jasmine Denike:

Hey Matt, don’t feel pressured to answer all of them. I had a lot I wanted to know! The last two questions are completely optional and pretty general. Just wanted to add that I really enjoyed reading your book A Doctor Pedaled Her Bicycle Over The River Arno. It was really interesting because of its diversity in writing styles as well as the mood difference between poems. I hope you like my questions, and thank you for taking your time to answer them! (:

Matt Rader:

Dear Jasmine,

Thank you for these questions. I hope that my answers provide some insight.

All the best,
Matt

JD:

In your poem “from Reservations: I. K’ómoks,” it describes the enthrallment of one’s journey to get to anywhere from a home so secluded that everything is a quarter of an hour away. Is this any reference to your childhood? From brief descriptions of yourself found through multiple sources, you grew up in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. From moving from Canada to the United States affected your poetry in any way? Did a change of environment occur so suddenly to affect your writing?

MR:

I grew up in Comox which gets its name from the K’ómoks nation. It’s a small town on a peninsula on the east side of Vancouver Island. It’s not really that isolated. It was much more isolated when I was a boy. The town with all the shopping and amenities was Courtenay on the other side of the Courtenay River (Comox is on the peninsula on the east side, Courtenay is in the bowl of the valley and Cumberland, where I live now is on the west side in the foothills of the Beaufort Range). I moved away from the valley when I was eighteen to go to university. I moved back finally just over a year ago.

Living in the United States was a wonderful experience for me personally and creatively. I had thought that no other place than the Comox Valley could feel like home to me but I fell in love with Eugene, Oregon (where I lived) and could have happily stayed there had circumstances not been different. Creatively, Oregon was perfect for me — it was far enough away to gain some perspective on the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada — all these places I had always been “from” — and close enough that my homesickness never overwhelmed me. I learned that I could be “home” even when I wasn’t home. And one of the ways I could do this was through writing.

JD:

Throughout your experience with your micro-publishing company Mosquito Press, did you learn any valuable lessons that helped you throughout your writing and/or publishing of poetry?

MR:

I would hesitate to call Mosquito a company. We were mostly me and my friends making chapbooks in my apartment and watching football. We didn’t make any money and we didn’t take any money (in terms of grants and such — we tried to sell our chapbooks for enough money to cover the printing). But MP was a community building exercise. And that was probably the most important lesson: the strength a solid community can give a writer. And I’m still benefitting from those years making chapbooks. My friend, Liz Bachinsky, who made a MP book with me, blurbed my new book and I am touring this spring with another MP alumnus, Michael V. Smith. But more importantly, these are two of my best friends. Norman Mailer said it is more important to be a good man than a good writer. I learned that lesson too.

JD:

Do you have any habits when writing poetry (like sitting, standing or dancing beforehand; eating something or listening to music)? When you write, do you ever picture a conclusion or do you write until your hand hurts? Have you ever thought about not thinking the way that you did, and would you ever consider turning that into a piece (the idea of not being capable of writing about something in a certain light)?

MR:

Often when I write and when I read I wear earplugs and sit in a dark room. I experience a lot of body pain, mostly in my hands but all through my body when I read and write. I try not to imagine conclusions though I often have a sense of direction and length. I have learned to not adhere too closely to these senses but also pay them mind — the sense of direction and the sense of pain. One thing I never do is write the title of the piece down until after the first complete draft. Even if I am sure of what the title will be. Much of writing is about leveraging yourself into places where you can think about things that you could not think about otherwise or have thoughts you would not have otherwise. I have felt this to be one of the great benefits of formal structures in poetry, for instance. But I also find my commitment to characters in my fiction work leads me to ideas that I had not thought before. Then again, I have also felt that there were things that I could not get enough distance from to write about. In my new book there is a poem about a friend who committed suicide. I couldn’t write about her for a long time. I had nothing to say that wasn’t fully about my own particular grief. And then when I did write about her I found myself being far too harsh towards her husband who is also my friend and one of the people I admire most in the world — this harshness was a product of how my imagination distorted the historical details for the sake of the poem. A few people I showed the early work about her to loved it. They felt it was very powerful. But it didn’t matter to me because I felt it did damage to my friend. I rewrote and rewrote the poem. I cut the husband out. I still think the poem is morally fraught but it does not harm the husband (my friend) and this matters more to me than writing a good poem. Which you can see fits with my response to the question above. I’m with Mailer.

JD:

What goes through your mind when writing poetry? Do you consider the words you use to sound the way they are (i.e. sultry, lucid, squeeze, etc.), or do you like to switch up your writing style from a rhyming scheme, to imagery to even a cumulative poem? I want to add that I really enjoyed your poem in Living Things entitled “Visits to the Royal British Columbia Museum” that incorporates both cumulative poems as well as a final rhyming scheme in the final stanza. Was there any particular thought put into even this poem of sorts?

MR:

Mostly I write poems only when a phrase or two has been kicking around in my mind for some time. I have to hear it in there. And it gets attached to an image and then I wait for the exact right moment to start. Some times I’m too early. Some times too late. There is a sweet spot. And then, yes, I have challenged myself with certain kinds of formal practices such as sonnets or the Fibonacci inspired poem at the beginning of LT. But even those poems start first with the sounds of the words. The Museum poem comes from the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built.” There is a famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop about visiting Ezra Pound in the hospital that also uses this scheme. There are many variations of the nursery rhyme and there are variations between my poem and Bishop’s poem from the nursery rhyme as well. I believe that Mark Doty also has a poem that takes up that rhyme. In my case, this was an experiment (as all poems are really) that succeeded, I think. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was writing about at first, but when I hit on the museum idea the form suddenly made so much sense. The way history builds and the way repeat visits to a place build. And there is a tension in the poem that builds. The question with each new stanza is “How is this poem going to pull it off, again?”

JD:

How much does your book of poetry, Living Things, or any other books you have written, linked at all to your daughter who was born only recently after this book was published?

MR:

I have two daughters, Neela who is five, and Nora, who shares my birthday and will be two tomorrow (as I write this). They have both impacted my writing by their personalities and their presences. I say more about this below with regards to the poem “Emergency Broadcast System.”

JD:

After publishing your first book in 2003 (The Land Beyond), did you ever expect your poems to be read to an international audience consisting of North America, Australia and Europe? Also, did any certain events occur around the time of your writing of The Land Beyond to trigger the immediate and emotional poetical changes that are visible and are described as “[flipping] from childhood memories to car crashes with the precision of a switchblade” as well as “beyond memory, despair, or fear” which to me means beyond the ending?

MR:

Well, The Land Beyond was a lovely little book that had a print run of 100! So I had no hopes for its worldwide reach. To be honest, I have never really had a sense of my audience. I think I have imagined an audience that looks a lot like me with my knowledge and background. Who isn’t me but is much like me. And that’s who I write for. I don’t really care where they are and I don’t really think about it much. Still, it’s nice to be invited to Australia!

I’m not sure about the changes in The Land Beyond. All of those poems in that chapbook appeared again (except for one) in Miraculous Hours. I like your question about the ending though…I don’t know about those poems specifically, but I do hope to write from a place that is free of just about everything — even hope. Because I imagine that action of the most hopeless situation is the most interesting and worthy action. I think the poem of mine that best enacts this is "Emergency Broadcast System." It’s a sonnet that describes my very real terror at nuclear annihilation and then turns in the sestet (the final six lines of the poem) to a description of Neela’s first steps. There is no hope that the threat of nuclear war will ever be extinguished. Certainly not in my lifetime or Neela’s. But she learns to walk anyway. If you want to read this idea of radical hope (that’s what I call action out of hopelessness) you might try “The Student” by Anton Chekhov or “Ghetto” by Michael Longley.

JD:

In regards to poetic tradition, do you ever draw from classic poets like Shakespeare for inspiration? Have you ever attempted to replicate a poem but in your own style?

MR:

Yes. In fact, more and more my inspiration comes directly from the major poets of the past. Doctor has poems in it that take their form directly from Herbert, Hardy, Wordsworth, & Shakespeare among others. As well as quite a few classic forms and poetic genres such as the sonnet, the sestina, the ballad, the villanelle, the triolet, the prospect ode, the elegy, the dramatic monologue, the eclogue, the ode, the collage and so on. You’ll also find direct reference to Dante and Virgil and Auden among others. I also write about other artists such as Kafka, Carravagio, Michelangelo and Rubens. I have copied, imitated and stolen directly from the best people I could find. My only regret is that I haven’t stolen from all of them yet.

JD:

What, may I ask, is your opinion on Dutch immigrants? In an interview with an online blog “Tongues of Fire” you said in response to the question “What are the subjects that are really inspiring or engaging you right now?” that Dutch immigrants was an inspiring topic to you.

MR:

My father’s parents were Dutch immigrants. They came across after World War Two and ended up in northern British Columbia. I find that journey fascinating.

JD:

This one’s just for fun: If you could change the world, would you? How?

MR:

This is impossible for me to say really. I have an ethical/moral world view that I feel strongly about but it is relevant for about a ten-foot radius around my body. Within that radius if I could change anything I would grace myself with the ability to more effectively resist violence.


Matt Rader is the author of three books of poems, Miraculous Hours, Living Things and most recently, A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno. His poems and stories a have been published across Canada, the United States, Australia and Europe. He lives in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island where he teaches literature and writing.


Like the tea, Jasmine is a warm combination of aromas that range from her spicy British and Russian roots to sweet Chinese attitudes. A quick sip and she becomes a burst of energy lighting up the room, whereas a longer drink displays Jasmine as a calmer and contemporary girl who would love nothing more than to listen to music, sing and write forever. Her published works, though limited, include elementary school poems and speeches as well as original songs. When she isn’t writing, she can be found daydreaming, sleeping or casting magic spells.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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