Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Keith Garebian

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Keith Garebian (photo credit: Elisabeth Feryn)

As the world watches American politics become increasingly divisive, political jargon and language reaches new extremes. In Accidental Genius: The Pantheon of Modern American Poets (Guernica Editions), Keith Garebian finds the humour and sometimes troubling motivations in the most bombastic of right-wing American rhetoric. By taking seriously the bizarre utterances of well-known and inflammatory cultural figures such as Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachmann and many more, Keith deconstructs the theatricality and manipulation inherent to these (often purposefully) controversial statements.

We spoke to Keith as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Keith tells us about the satirists he admires, how he encountered an embarrassment of riches when searching for material for Accidental Genius and how art makes its own path.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Keith Garebian:

Accidental Genius, my new book with Guernica is a political satire masquerading as a parody of poetry. I have long been amazed by the lunatic rightwing in the U.S. — not that we lack for similar lunatics in Canada, but that would be the subject of another book, perhaps. I am referring to Republicans and neo-cons, as well as the mentally challenged celebrities who can’t think themselves into a paper bag, much less get out of one. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Anton Scalia, Rick Santorum, Ted Nugent, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump (he of the vaginal lips and hair of questionable pedigree), Ted Cruz and others came immediately to mind.

And when you think, for example, of all the Republican candidates for President in the last election and those gearing up for the next one, you realize that underlying their astounding ignorance and wackiness is their implicit belief in a Constitutional right to be Stupid. They seem to be anti-science, anti-environment, anti-immigrant, anti-birth-control, anti-Palestinian, anti-Cuban, anti-gay/lesbian/transgender — anti- just about anything that would prove that evolution is progressive or that man is a rational animal. Of course, I am not limiting myself to politicians; there are plenty of other offenders from other areas as well, including the Supreme Court, music, television, film, religion, etc. I decided to expose their stupidity by first inflating it in the guise of “serious” poetry. So I selected some of their most inane statements or utterances and set these up as “poems,” wrote mock-serious poetic commentary on them, and started with a Preface that was itself a parody of academic seriousness.

I am very much attracted to satire in all genres — everyone from Swift, Pope, Dryden, Naipaul, and Richler in literature to the films of Chaplin, Pedro Almodovar, and Woody Allen or the plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, Moliere, Albee, Stoppard, and Chekhov or the art of Grosz, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney. This is not an exhaustive list by any means because we have contemporary satirists in mass media: Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz, for example, or some of our own wonderful Canadians, such as Rick Mercer and Cathy Jones.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


I was incredulous that a nation that thinks itself the “greatest,” could have such a huge number of loudmouth fools, ignoramuses, narcissists, homophobes, warmongers, bigots and hypocrites crowding the headlines and television channels, and that many of these actually had an incredible number of supporters or fellow-believers who often go unchallenged. So my underlying question, I suppose, is how should we treat these offenders? I decided from the outset that parody and satire would be my weapons of demolition.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The actual writing did not take long, once I researched the “celebrities” and made a selection of their most ridiculous statements. The problem was always an embarrassment of riches, and as current events show, there is no end to rightwing lunacy. It is the gift that keeps on giving. If I were to update it, I would, of course, add Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, etc. And I have already been urged to do an all-Canadian volume.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I do not have a definite or unvarying routine, ritual, time, or space for writing. I go by inspiration, and that can come in many ways — from reading a wonderful writer or watching a film or studying a painting. It really depends on the subject and my motive for writing. I almost always write in my office in my apartment, where I have a vast library. I now also almost always create directly on my computer, which makes editing easy and quick.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I am not easily discouraged during the writing process. My problem is that once I am inspired, I write very quickly, with very little substantial editing required — at least when the poems are successful. My poems usually go through only a single revision because I try them out first on excellent other poet/editors, such as Elana Wolff and Allan Briesmaster. My other problem is that I live in Mississauga, which is not exactly a Literary Wonderland, so I rarely attend poetry readings elsewhere and do not have a wide literary network.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I don’t believe you can define a great book or a great anything else. Any real work of art makes its own path, which means that it challenges conventions or expectations. However, in my case, a great book would be one that spurs my own imagination, satisfies my curiosity, makes my spine tingle, makes me wish that I had created it. I respond to different great books differently, so I cannot define greatness. Besides, definitions are the business of philosophers, not creative writers.


What are you working on now?


In terms of poetry, I am awaiting publication of Georgia and Alfred from Quattro, so this is already a fait accompli because it is actually coming out just a month or two ahead of Accidental Genius. Georgia and Alfred deals with the personalities, sexuality, and art of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, and the poems in it are usually leaner and tighter than the ones I normally write. However, yet again, I experiment with personae and voice. I am currently working on a second collection of Armenian poems to follow my first, Children of Ararat. I think of myself as a lyric poet of melancholy, and I strongly believe in the oral nature of poetry rather than as something for the library or academic forum. My tone is predominantly elegiac in these poems in progress, but I also experiment with form, following, for example, Anne Carson, Paul Violi, Adrienne Rich, or even Gertrude Stein in one instance.

Keith Garebian is a widely published, award-winning author of non-fiction and poetry, who lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Of his 19 books to date, five are of poetry, including Frida: Paint Me As A Volcano (Buschek), Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (Signature), Children of Ararat (Frontenac) and Moon on Wild Grasses (Guernica), for which he supplied the cover paintings and illustrations.

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