Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Tim Prior

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Tim Prior

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 and July. In this interview, poet Tim Prior speaks with student Fox Mitchell.

Hey Mr. Prior,

Nice meeting you, in a way. I’m very glad that I could interview you. I think your poetry is great. It provokes a lot of deep, sharp imagery when I read it. So, I’m Fox Mitchell. A high school student. That’s really it. So far. Here we go.

As you’re the the poet that I have decided to interview, I thought I’d look you up online. You know, to see what you’re like, what’s your background, how you came to write poetry, etc. I didn’t find much information about you but I learned that you’re a high school teacher. It also seems that you only publish your works in literary journals. Why is this (the lack of personal information, etc.)? If this is on purpose, or even if it’s not, would you mind giving a bit of background? By that, I mean how have you balanced your life with teaching and writing poetry and how do they work together?

I publish in literary journals because, for years, they have been the primary organ for the publication of new writing (whether fiction or poetry). I like seeing my writing in print, and it’s nice to know that readers throughout the country can find my work. In the last few years, some of these journals often post work from their current issues online.

The vast majority of poets have some kind of “day job”—there’s no money in poetry, by itself. Teaching English is a great job for a poet because you’re always near some form of reading and writing, and you’re always thinking about reading and writing.

After reading some of your work, I noticed that your style of poetry is less intrusive on the “grammatically correct” word structure and spelling than many other poets. One of the things I have noticed is the work that you do with the sentence. I have an idea of why you do this (the lack of capitals, the semicolons, and the lack of periods); there is no sentence, because there is no beginning and no end. But, that is where I see a collision. The theme of life and death, beginning and end, is very prevalent in your poems, and yet the sentencing, or lack there of, indicates that there may be no end and beginning. My question is: why did you choose to write like this? Could it have been to separate yourself from other poets before you? Or were you influenced by something that helped you create this style?

The more you study poetry, the more you will discover that there really are very few “rules”. (You might look up the work of an American poet named e.e. cummings or a fellow named Charles Olsen.) I have been influenced by every poet I’ve read (starting with Homer), and the history of poetry has taught me that every good poem is a self-contained universe whose rules belong to it alone, and no other poem (the success of any poem lies in the poet’s recognizing that fact and making the poem cohere to that fact–and that is a very very difficult thing to do). I think a good poet is conscious of the purpose of every single mark he or she makes on the page. Every reader has been “programmed” to respond to each of those marks in a pretty conventional way, so whether a capital letter or a semi-colon, the mark is attracting a certain response. So why would you use a capital because you’re “supposed to” when not using a capital will challenge your reader and make them look a bit more closely? Good art tries to make the familiar unfamiliar. Additionally, line breaks and punctuation work together to guide rhythm on the printed page, so I use them in that way. I hope my reader considers the words and sentences of a poem in relation to the poem itself.

I very much enjoyed reading your poem “the island”. It’s hard to describe the feeling when reading it. The image that keeps popping up is groups of large hairy hands picking things up, moving them around, but leaving them basically in the same spot. It’s also a very dark poem. “Dark”, “black”, “shadowed”, “darkened” are some of the words that show up in this poem. The poem is a very slow, depressing one to me. But there is also that theme of being trapped on an island for example. And, similarly with the symbols of life and death, there is a contrast between movement and staying still. In this poem, there are trucks, boats, everything that can take you places, yet no one seems to go anywhere, really until the last line of the poem. What makes you write with this contrast? And why is the mood of the poem, as well as other poems of yours, calm and solemn?

“the island” is about the place where my father grew up, Howe Island, in Ontario near Kingston. The first Priors to immigrate to Canada from Ireland are buried in the churchyard there (that’s in the poem). My knowledge of the island is a composite of my very early memories (being a kid on vacation and travelling there to my grandfather’s dairy farm in the late 60’s), my father’s memories, and my own experiences travelling back there since I’ve been an adult. It was once a place full of thriving little farms. My grandfather’s farm, where my father was born, no longer exists. Now it’s a kind of pretty suburb of Kingston and Gananoque. The poem is really a form of “elegy”—a celebration and recollection of something that no longer exists.

Your series of poems, otro mundo, is based on the voyages of Christopher Columbus when he discovered the Americas. I’m guessing the question is rather obvious, but I’ll ask it anyway. What is the importance of these events in your life and why were you drawn to write about them? Also, on a side note, you started with “the water was clear all the way down, and he watched fish turning down there in schools…” When you wrote these poems, where did you start his journey? Where is Columbus in the first lines of the poem naming?

Years ago, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I was working out of a little office on an upper floor of Robarts library (U of T). Some of the stacks on that floor belonged to that part of Library of Congress classification system that is devoted to the category of “exploration literature”—different, often first-hand accounts of various travels of exploration. Columbus’s were among them, and I began reading them. He kept a log of each of his four voyages of discovery. It’s pretty amazing to read the thoughts and impressions of a person seeing something they’ve never seen before. It all struck me as fundamentally poetic, and so I turned the journals of the four voyages into a long series of long poems about those voyages. It’s my favourite piece of writing. The poems go from the beginning to the very end of the voyages. Most of the details in the poems are taken directly from Columbus’s own writing (like the jesuit relations poems, which are also taken directly from historical documents, my Columbus poems recover distinctive, often perceptive and beautiful ideas and images). As far as the first lines of “naming” are concerned, they come from his journals, and this observation occurs early after he made landfall at a place—as the poem indicates—called San Salvador.

Unlike a lot of other poets who publish their works in books or online, you chose to publish your work in literary journals such as Queen’s Quarterly, Grain, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and others. These are all Canadian literary journals that are situated all over Canada: Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, etc. Personally, I don’t have a very strong connection with Canada. But you have given your poetry to publishers all over the country. Did you make a conscious decision to keep your work in Canada, and if so, why?

As far as where I publish my poetry is concerned, as I explain in an earlier response, print publication has always been very much the norm. Particularly younger poets, who, increasingly, see the majority of the text they read on computer, cell and tablet screens, online publication is an increasingly popular means of “publication”–however, there is a difference between putting your poems on your blog or webpage and seeking publication in an established journal (many of which have digital editions). Culture is still working out whether the new freedom of expression supposedly offered by the internet is true freedom and simply chaos. If everyone’s online, is everyone important? (the answer is no)

I publish in Canada because that works for me. (I am struck by your comment about not having a very strong connection to Canada; you might ask yourself what you mean by “Canada”?)

I know you have been a poet for more than thirty years. Have you considered publishing a final book to sum up your works, or would you like to stay with the journals? This is a lot of questions, so I guess to boil it down to one; where does it end?

Why my poetry has never been in book form when it has appeared in and continues to appear in the major Canadian literary journals for 30 years is an absolute mystery to me.

Where does it end? It doesn’t: to write is to live. Most writers would tell you the same thing.

It’s been interesting to share these thoughts with you, Fox. Good luck with your project.

Tim Prior is a Toronto poet whose poetry, since the early eighties, has appeared and continues to appear in a variety of Canadian literary journals: The Antigonish Review, Canadian Literature, CV2, The Fiddlehead, Grain, Literary Review of Canada, Queen’s Quarterly and The Toronto Quarterly, among others. He holds a doctorate in English Literature, and has taught English at the high school, college and university levels. He has served as a judge for the Hart House Literary Competition. His fiction has appeared in the Hart House Review and Quarry and won the 1991 Hart House Literary Competition.

Fox Mitchell, the son of parents, has a lot of trouble writing biographies. He just can’t write about himself. But to start with dry facts, he was born seventeen years ago in Toronto. He’s still there, but he’s leaving soon. He’s going to fly around the world, picking up mass information and using it to collect different types of wealth: art, influence and money, mainly.

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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