Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A short interview with Michael Blouin

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Michael Blouin. Photo by Tara Rutherford-Blouin

Michael Blouin is the author of the poetry collection Wore Down Trust (Pedlar Press) and the novel Chase and Haven (Coach House Books). He talks to rob mclennan about the influence of film, authenticity in writing, Michael Ondaatje and the death of Jumbo the circus elephant.

rob mclennan:

I’m interested in something you recently said about coming into writing through film. What was your trajectory to writing from film, and what do you think it brings to your writing?

Michael Blouin:

I did an undergrad degree in film production, but when I got into the industry I think I realized that I would be unlikely to tell the stories I wanted to tell in that form. Films are made by committee and that can work well when it works well, but there is just too much in the way between myself and the "reader" that way. Maybe I just don't play well with others. I collaborate well artistically with one other person, but more than that and it feels too much like a team. Visually though I think there's a lot of linkage between what I tried to do in film and what I do with writing. I think I was always just telling stories but it took a number of years (and a lot of scriptwriting) before realizing that it was the words I needed. My readers could hire the actors to do the rest in their heads. Perhaps, too, this is why my poetry now takes pretty much book-length form as opposed to single pieces. I have to involve narrative in some way, even if in a very tangential tortuously twisted way (my more recent poetry projects). As far as a background in film contributing to what I do now I think that to some degree it trained me to be economical in expression. I don't like downtime in what I do. I suppose that I don't like downtime in general. It allows the bastards to catch up. I think that in expression though this is something (efficient expression) that film may have taught me. My trajectory has been photography to film to screenwriting to short story to poetry to novel to whatever the hell it is I'm doing in my next book. Which is perhaps all of the above to a degree and throw in some creative biography and autobiography. I think the new work is fairly cinematic.

rm:

I'm intrigued by this. I mean, I can easily see the cinematic influence throughout your novel Chase and Haven, and fascinated by your beginning with short fiction, but what brought about your movement into poems? Do you see your poetry books as elements in film? I have to admit, I'm surprised you haven't read Michael Turner's Hard Core Logo, very much a cinematic/documentary poetry book, even to the point it was adapted into a feature film. How did you get to poetry from short fiction, and what do you think your cinematic core adds to your poetry, specifically?

MB:

Chase and Haven is cinematic, no doubt. Even though my poetry now is very different from my first collection I've always seen a lot of those pieces as possible short videos. The new book which is certainly poetic in nature and intent would make a kick-ass film. No one will make it, but it would be good.

To be honest the road from short fiction to poetry was a long and dry one. There was a period of more than ten years where writing was being done but it wasn't anything good. This would have been my late 20s to my late 30s. Late in my 30s, the voice came back in the form of poetry, and it has become more insistent every year since. I just serve it now the best I am able and hope that it stays around. I think that the cinematic element is still quite strong in what I do now both in the poetry manuscripts and the novels. It manifests both in visual sensibility and in narrative. And in dialogue. A lot of my earliest writing was in screenplay and play form. Dialogue just tumbles for me fast enough that I struggle some times to keep up. I'm not saying that it's all good, just that it comes quickly. Some writing is, or seems to be transcribing, when things are firing on all cylinders. For me dialogue usually comes like that. I'm very interested lately in the lines between the page and reality and the author and the world. The fourth wall fascinates me, always has, but even more so lately and I see this manifest in a lot of ways these days in the work of others and certainly in a lot of the work I'm doing now. I think that my cinematic training lends immediacy to the poetry I'm making now. I hope that it does. The new book certainly has elements of documentary about it, some cinéma vérité. And you'd be surprised by a lot of what I haven't read.

rm:

When you started writing short fiction and poetry, what were your early models? What writers were breathing down your neck as you sat down to write?

MB:

Michael Ondaatje was always leaning in over my shoulder and breathing cigarette smoke onto the back of my head, which was very distracting. Billy the Kid and Slaughter had a profound effect on me very early on and in many ways I think convinced me that I could be a writer. I had, until the age of 18, led a very suburban proscribed life and that included the books I read. I dimly remember that at the time I had a view of writing which was largely based upon what I had read about the literary and publishing world of New York City in the 1950s. What Ondaatje did in those books (and in Running in the Family) exploded what I had thought of as possible when I was in my early 20s. I'd like to say that Purdy, Nichol, bisset, Thompson and a host of others did too, but it took me years to discover all that I needed to find. I don't suppose that process ever ends. Back in the day when (for me at the time) the possibilities were limited to what was available at W.H. Smith — Ondaatje was the only one available to crack the code for me. I acknowledge him in my next book because I really do believe he was instrumental in my growth.

rm:

I know you’ve gone through periods of carrying around a copy of his Coming Through Slaughter. What is it about Michael Ondaatje’s writing that you find so compelling? What is it specifically about his prose that you’ve wanted to incorporate into your own writing?

MB:

I don't recall doing that (but I don't outright deny it). It's a hard question to answer. More than anything else I remember that he was the first writer who allowed me to realize just what the written word could achieve. The fact that he was doing it from where I lived was helpful somehow as well. I guess books such as that helped me to begin to learn how to write as well as taught me that hoping to do so wasn't as crazy as it seemed. Ondaatje I think is the master of the purposeful sentence. One of the many things that he does so very well is to craft the lead up to a climactic point in language. I hope some day to write something as good as the last pages of Slaughter or Running in the Family, or the first page of Billy (the second actually) “These are the killed (by me)...”. I suppose it is of some importance also that he blends poetry into prose as well as biographical elements. This is familiar territory for me. I hope he reads my next book. I'd like him to.

rm:

In an interview with Spencer Gordon in Broken Pencil, you talk about how your first novel, Chase and Haven, “is firmly set in the community in which I currently live and work which is Oxford Mills, Kemptville and the wider North Grenville County area. My next novel takes place here as well as do parts of the novel to follow.” Further in the same interview, you mention that “My third novel branches out from this area to travel to St. Thomas Ontario and my new book of poetry travels to the southern U.S. and New Brunswick — in both cases because they are driven there by historical events.” I’m intrigued by the deliberate geographic placement of each project, and the historical specifics you mention. You are obviously not writing books that could happen anywhere, anytime. Why do you find it so important to have such firm geographic and historical anchors?

MB:

I'm not certain that it is important, it just seems to work well so far for me. I just finished reading How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, which I wouldn't say is firmly rooted in place. It happens largely in Toronto but could take place just about anywhere I think and remain just as effective as it is (which is very). I teach my writing students that the old maxim "Write what you know" is not really applicable but that they should write what feels true, and I suppose that it's easier for me to do that when using locations that I know intimately even if I'm describing events with which I may not be as familiar. I have not met the ghost of Johnny Cash, for example, and I was not present at the death of Jumbo the circus elephant (events from my next two books), but I have been in most of the places I describe (both physically and emotionally). I do strive for a sense of authenticity, of the "real moment," and I think that this sort of rooting is one (but only one) tool for achieving that, at least it is for me.

rm:

Part of what I really enjoyed about Heti’s novel is that the geography is there, but completely incidental to the book’s essential movement. I know George Bowering has forwarded the maxim, “Write what you don’t know, otherwise you won’t learn.” From your answer, I suppose the question becomes, what is true? Are those bits of geographic and historic information simply jumping-off points for your writing, or are you aiming to weave your own stories in and around those already-existing facts?

MB:

I believe they're both. My next novel for example utilizes the historical fact of the killing of Jumbo the circus elephant by collision with a train. So that event struck me as one that would begin the weave of a story which now extends across the continent, through multiple characters and spans a 150 years. At the same time, when I do utilize historical events, I feel a strong responsibility to get them right, or accurate. When I wrote the day of Jumbo's death I was careful to get the weather right, the way it was, as closely as I can manage through the available sources of research. I suppose that which is true is also that which feels honest to the author both emotionally and creatively. I think if it doesn't feel true to the writer there's very little chance of it feeling true to a reader. I guess that's obvious but it helps me to remember that when striving to make every moment believable. Otherwise what's the point? It amazes me the degree to which a good writer can make a reader forget that they're looking at a series of small symbols on paper or on a screen. There's not another art form that does that in the same way. Writers work with such basic tools and try to achieve so much. Not to say that I don't enjoy reminding a reader that they're looking at words. There's a lot of fun to be had there too!

Michael Blouin's third trade book, the poetry collection Wore Down Trust (Pedlar Press), launched at The Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 27th, 2011. His novel Chase and Haven (Coach House Books) won the ReLit Award and was a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. He has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards and has won the Diana Brebner Prize from Arc Magazine. He is represented internationally by Westwood Creative Artists.

For more information about Wore Down Trust please visit the Pedlar Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011), 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010) and wild horses (2010) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview) , seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com) . He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

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