Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Mark Truscott

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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Mark Truscott

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. In this interview, Malvern Collegiate student Katya Vukovic speak with poet Mark Truscott (Nature, BookThug 2010).

Katya Vukovic:

Hey Mark, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to answer my questions; it is much appreciated. Reading your poetry books was my first experience dabbling with poetry and I must say they all did a wonderful job at making me think and try to understand from a different approach. Through reading your work and learning more about you I came up with some questions. I look forward to your responses.

Mark Truscott:

Thanks, Katya. I really like your questions. I’ll try to answer them below.

KV:

You live in Toronto, which is a very culturally diverse place, and dedicated both of your books Said Like Reeds or Things and Nature to family members, Lisa your wife, your grandfather and then Sam and Lucy. I know Sam is your son and although I could not find information on who Lucy was I am guessing she is either family or a close friend. I feel a lot of the time people become inspired and influenced by their family, friends, location of living. I was wondering if you had specific poems in your books that you associate to each one of the people you dedicated your books? Also has living in a culturally diverse place like Toronto changed your style or inspired through your writing?

MT:

I wonder if it’s almost the opposite with me, that my poetry practice has a stronger influence over the rest of my life than the reverse. Lately I’ve found myself thinking that poetry is more than an artform, that it’s actually a way of living. And so if I had to choose, I’d say that my writing exerts the stronger influence. When I think about the habits of mind I most want to instill in my children — attention, care and thoughtfulness — I recognize them as the most important to me in my writing, as the modes of thinking that lead to the kinds of poems I feel good about. And I realize that my writing practice has a huge influence over what I value in the rest of my life, or what I don’t value. I don’t care much about status. I don’t care much about fitting in. I don’t like being entertained if that implies escape or somehow forgetting where I am. I do have tremendous respect for attention, care and thoughtfulness in others, regardless of what they’re paying attention to. I like the commonplace. I like to imagine encountering the given. I can trace all of these valuations to my poetic practice: they all contribute in one way or another to the writing of poems that I find meaningful.

But of course writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and what I’ve just described is the part of the story that suggests itself as more significant. My grandfather was probably the one who showed me the example of my favourite habits of mind, though it’s taken writing to discover how important they are to me. I wanted to acknowledge Lisa for her tolerance of my writing practice and also for challenging me to recognize the limits of its relevance. And in the case of my children, I hope someday they’ll come to know who their father was through his writing.

Do I write poems with particular people in mind? Not really. It’s funny though, there are certain poems that seem to belong in particular people’s spaces. I don’t write at a desk. I find quiet spaces wherever I can. So, for example, a couple of the “branch” poems in Nature seem to belong in what has become our daughter’s room.

On the subject of writing among diversity, I was recently looking at some demographic statistics for my children’s school, and I notice that its percentage of children from non-English-speaking countries is below the provincial average. On one level this information surprised me. On another it confirmed what I see in my neighbourhood. Toronto is going through some big changes, many of them troubling. It’s almost as if it’s becoming two cities. My neighbourhood is extremely tolerant, and I think most of the people in it would like to be living among cultural diversity. It’s probably pretty diverse in terms of mental health (CAMH plays a significant role in my neighbourhood). It’s also probably reasonably diverse in terms of sexual orientation. But for whatever reason (it probably has a lot to do with money, real estate and a lack of investment in public transit), neighbourhoods are becoming more homogeneous, and large parts of central Toronto seem to be home to the haves whereas the have-nots are pushed to the periphery, where life involves a lot of time spent waiting for the bus. We lose a lot of our health and diversity as a city in the process.

Has writing amidst cultural diversity had much impact on my poems? My mother was an immigrant as a child, and I grew up with a strong sense of cultural difference, that we did things slightly differently. (My maternal grandmother also lives with a rather noxious sense of cultural superiority, which has rendered me intolerant of delusion.) Also, I left my birthplace in Indiana when I was under two years old, and I’ve never been back. I have no mental picture of it, I have no sense of how life goes there, and sometimes it seems I’ve never been where I was born. I think these two experiences have given me the sense that being there is complicated. That’s probably somewhat different sense of cultural diversity than you were looking for, but there you go.

KV:

In your second book, Nature, you have quotes/poems by Thomas A. Clarke and William Carlos Williams. Why did you choose these specific poets to be in your book; have they been a major inspiration in your writing?

MT:

Yes, Williams and Clark have been major inspirations. So have Lorine Niedecker, Phyllis Webb, W.W.E. Ross, Robert Grenier, Aram Saroyan, Clark Coolidge, Louis Zukofsky, Donato Mancini, Camille Martin and Margaret Avison. Any list I give you will be incomplete. Here are two poems by William Carlos Williams that made a huge impression on me many years ago.

The Locust Tree in Flower (First Version)
Among
 the
leaves

bright

green

of wrist-thick

tree

and old

stiff broken

branch

ferncool

swaying

loosely strung—

come May

again

white blossom

clusters

hide

to spill

their sweets

almost

unnoticed

down

and quickly

fall



The Locust Tree in Flower
Among

of

green

stiff

old

bright

broken

branch

come

white

sweet

May

again

KV:

As I was looking for background information on you, I came upon a reading you did from Nature at the 2010 BookThug Fall Launch on Youtube, and I have to say it was quite interesting to see the tone with which you read your poems. The first poem you read from Nature goes “one, or, a non, one, o, one, on, no one, on one“ and sounds as if it was created while you were pondering your thoughts. I figure you were pondering nature because of the title but got me to thinking that while you write do certain thoughts get cut off? Another question I had about this specific poem (mostly because of the title) was if it was your inspiration to title your book Nature?

MT:

Jay MillAr once challenged me to write a nature poem, and “Nature” (i.e., the first poem in the book) is the result. I think he and I both might be said to draw heavily on a tradition of nature poetry, though we’re both skeptical of its assumptions. And so I like to think that the title “Nature” is a provocation as much as anything else. Our society is understandably concerned and confused about nature. The natural has become a handy marketing tool in the face of looming environmental catastrophe. But what is nature? I suppose when there were blank spaces on maps, we could point to places free of  human intervention (at least as far as the mapmakers were concerned). But now every centimetre of the earth is potentially under constant surveillance. We know that landscape painting is founded in artifice. And of course hikes and expeditions are cultural acts. But at the same time, our primary technology — language — seems to arise naturally. In the face of the ineffable world, we feel the need to speak. It’s all a big muddle, isn’t it?

I like the notion of “pondering thoughts.” A poem by William Bronk says: “Ideas are always wrong. / Their separateness / causes a threat to neuter each other out // and leave us without a world as it does here.” I agree that ideas, if we imagine them as a kind of closed, complete, self-identical representation of an aspect of the world, are always wrong. There is always more. There’s always a different way of looking at things (or hearing things, or thinking about things, etc.), and the different ways never fit together. So if “pondering thoughts” means something like subjecting one’s ideas to constant challenge and revision while keeping a sense of the larger world in mind, then, yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Thank you.

KV:

I noticed while reading your poems that many of them seem to be unfinished thoughts, for example “An n on a door.” When reading this I felt like there was more to the story, almost as if your thoughts got cut off. I may have interpreted them that way, but for you are they unfinished thoughts? Are they finished and this is the way you think? Or do you write you poems in this way to let the reader have and imagine their own interpretations?

MT:

When is a worthwhile thought ever finished? Don’t we come away silently repeating or perhaps revising every meaningful conversation we’ve ever had? Doesn’t the life of any book or film continue long after we’ve put the book down or finished watching? Doesn’t it begin as soon as we form our first expectation? Now let’s consider dynamics on a smaller scale. Of course we learn that a grammatical sentence expresses a complete thought, but that’s not really true, is it? If you look and listen carefully, any group of words is a riot of irresolvable relationships and patterns. Letters and combinations of letters repeat and invert themselves. There’s a near infinite amount of thinking to be done about any sentence, but we learn to ignore the majority of what’s there by focusing exclusively on the “message.” I suppose many of my poems occupy a space before the message forms and some of them, the ones that appear just to be banal statements, live among the echoes where the plain and simple stops making obvious sense and new possibilities emerge.

KV:

The first time I read through your book I realized that because of the length of your poems it was easy to speed through and maybe even be able to read it in about 10 minutes. This is the first time I have ever really studied poetry, and I can’t say I fully understand the minimalist approach to the full extent yet. What would you say and how you explain the purpose of writing such short pieces of work and how one should go about taking these poems in?

MT:

I suppose you can read my books in roughly 10 minutes (I’d heard about 12 as a record previously), but I don’t think you’ll get much out of them that way. You can speed through life, too — always looking for the next dazzlement, never resting long enough for anything to reveal itself or come to you. I tend to think though that you’re not going to be very satisfied, and you’re going to consume more than you conserve.

In any case, I’d say that the way to take my poems in is to avoid dismissing anything as insignificant. If you see that one word ends and the next word begins with the same letter, let yourself notice this fact. Allow yourself to be bewildered. What does the “it” in “it’s snowing” refer to anyway? (Take comfort in the fact that there is debate among linguists on this question and that not every participant is satisfied with the explanation that this “it” is merely the subject of an impersonal verb.)

KV:

In your poetry career so far you have produced two books. I imagine you are still producing poems and wonder if they differ from the ones you have written and published in the past? Also do you see another book in the future?

MT:

I’m working on a book called Branches. To me, the poems in the manuscript seem quite different from anything I’ve written before. You can find examples on these two web pages: http://www.culturalsociety.org/texts/poems/from-branches/  http://www.noojournal.com/view.php?mode=1&issue=weekly&id=470.


Mark Truscott is the author of two full-length books of poetry: Said Like Reed or Things (Coach House, 2004) and Nature (BookThug, 2010). In June 2011, BookThug published a prose chapbook, Form: A Series. Truscott lives with his wife and children in Toronto. His current book, tentatively entitled Branches, explores the importance of impurity in our use of language.


Katya Vukovic. A girl of blonde hair, crazy faces and a love of smiling. She is generally quiet and keeps to herself but when in her comfort zone has been described as “crazy.” She has lived the majority of her life in sunny Miami, Florida but sadly moved away from the beautiful weather to the bipolar weather of Toronto. She resides in a house with her out-of-control parents, two siblings, and dog, Cooper. Although doubting herself at times, she has finally made it to her grade 12 year at Malvern C.I. and cannot wait to be attending George Brown College in the fall. This is her first piece of published work.

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.

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page