Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Entitled Interview with Dean Steadman

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Dean Steadman

Composer and pianist Erik Satie's surreal, moving music was an important part of the eccentric and glamorous Paris of the early 20th century. He is reborn in Dean Steadman's second collection Après Satie — For Two and Four Hands (Brick Books). Dean's prose poems echo the surreal imagery and cyclical structure of Satie's music, borrowing titles from Satie's works, evoking that unforgettable period of Parisian history.

We talk to Dean today as part of our Entitled Interview series, where we ask writers to talk about how their titles came to be and the power of titles to influence a piece, its reading, and its impact.

He tells us about how he came to Après Satie, what makes a title difference from any other literary tool, and about Satie's own, wildly imaginative titles, including gems like "Taking advantage of his corns to steal his hoop".

Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came about it.

Dean Steadman:

My new poetry collection is titled Après Satie — For Two and Four Hands. As the first part of the title indicates, one of the inspirations for the collection was Parisian composer, Erik Satie (1866-1925). But I should make it clear that the book is not a biographical homage to Satie. Rather, it's a homage to a concept of art that Satie in all his wonderful eccentricity embodied in his music. Satie was a Dadaist in fin de siècle Montmartre. He refused to be part of the musical establishment and insisted instead that music had to resist tradition in order to find fresh expression and pulse with the life's sensations. It's a notion that is also central to poetry in all its attempts to give novelty to our experience of everyday events and to wake the mind from the lethargy of routine existence. Après Satie is "after Satie" in the sense of following Satie's example of breaking down the automatism of perception and defamiliarizing the familiar. I'll leave you and your readers to figure out the "For Two and Four Hands" portion of the title. If you're really stumped, there's a note at the back of the book that might be helpful. Isn't life great? The answers are always in the back of the book.


What, in your opinion, is the most important function of a title?


A title — whether it be the title of a book or an individual poem — is a device unlike any other literary tool available to an author. Its function, I think, is twofold. Its position as the reader's first point of contact with a work offers the author a unique opportunity to prepare the reader for the journey that lies ahead. It's important to stress though that it's only preparation and not outright direction. The journey must be the reader's own. The most fascinating thing for me in all this is that the journey is cyclical and on finishing the work the reader's thoughts will inevitably return to the title, even if but briefly. I think of this as the "Ah ha!" moment where the title now functions as a catalyst to complete the reading experience, perhaps confirming the reader's reaction to the work or revealing new possibilities of understanding.


What is your favourite title that you ever came up with and why? (For any piece, short or long.)


Après Satie — For Two and Four Hands is made up of prose poems often accompanied with poems written in other forms, both traditional and contemporary. The prose poems all borrow their titles from Satie's musical compositions. They are often whimsical and absurd titles reflecting Satie's world view and his attachment to the Paris Dada movement. Some of my favorites include "Prélude de La Porte héroïque du ciel" (Prelude to the Heroic Gate of Heaven), "Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois" (Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Wooden Fellow), and "Profiter de ce qu'il a des cors aux pieds pour lui prendre son cerceau" (Taking advantage of his corns to steal his hoop). The poems accompanying the prose poems have titles of my own making. I'm particularly fond of "Morning Shades an Evening Hue" for the imagery it evokes, and "A Congress for the Determination of the Directives and Defence of Illuminated Thinking" for its refusal to comply with the general conceptions of poetic language. Contrarians, Satie and me!


What about your favorite title as a reader, from someone else's work?


I have many favorites but Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept comes quickly to mind. It's a very poetic title, both in language and metre, and it prepares the reader for Smart's style of poetic prose. The title alludes to "Psalm 137" ("By the rivers of Babylon we lay down and wept ...") which adds an interesting dimension to the novel's otherwise modern exploration of love and abandonment. The title works on so many levels that it tells a story in itself. But don't let that stop you from reading (or rereading) the book. By all means read it and let it smash your heart to pieces with the poignancy of its language.


Did you consider any other titles for your current book and, if so, what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?


I considered We Spit I Bark & Worm for a short while. The words in this title are recognized by researchers as "ultaconserved words" that have descended into the English language unchanged, both in terms of sound and meaning, from a language that died out at the end of the Ice Age some 15,000 years ago. The phrase "We spit I bark & Worm" is a line from a poem in a series of poems (a "long poem," to use the generic term) that I wrote while working on Après Satie. Although thematically it was a good fit for Après Satie, I realized that stylistically it was too much of an aberration to work well with compositional flow of the other poems in the collection. So I completed it as a stand-alone chapbook and I was very fortunate to have AngelHousePress publish it. I had thought initially to use We Spit I Bark & Worm as the title for the chapbook but because Worm is the poem's heroic protagonist I decided to give him the limelight and went with Worm's Saving Day instead. There you have it. The story of a title that never was.


What are you working on now?


I've been working on individual poems, hoping an idea for a new collection might emerge. Nothing yet, I'm afraid. I've also started to write poetry reviews and have found the process to be in many ways as challenging and creatively satisfying as writing poetry itself.

Dean Steadman’s work has been widely published in Canadian journals and e-zines, as well as in the anthology Pith and Wry: Canadian Poetry (Scrivener Press, 2010). He is the author of two chapbooks: Portrait w/tulips (Leaf Editions, 2013), and Worm’s Saving Day (AngelHousePress, 2015). He was a finalist in the 2011 Ottawa Book Awards for his poetry collection, their blue drowning (Frog Hollow Press, 2010). Though he was born in Montreal and studied in Halifax, he has lived in Ottawa for most of his life.

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