Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jim Smith

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Jim Smith

Here at Open Book: Toronto, we've got a great year of book news, author interviews and literary events to look forward to. We're very happy to get into the 2013 saddle with Jim Smith, author of Happy Birthday Nicanor Parra (Mansfield Press). Jim is our first interviewee of the year, and will get your poetic juices flowing with his discussions of mistranslations, sci fi great Judith Merril and much, much more.

To celebrate, Open Book and Mansfield Press are giving away copies of Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra to two lucky readers. To enter, send an email to with the subject line "Jim Smith". Please include your name, mailing address and the title of your favourite read from 2012. For full contest rules, click here. Write to us by 5:00p.m. on Wednesday, January 9, 2013 for your chance to win!

Read on to hear from Jim, and stay tuned to Open Book throughout 2013 for up close and personal interviews with more great Canadian authors.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra.

Jim Smith:

It is about my fifteenth book of poetry since 1979, my second with Mansfield Press since 2009, and proudly, my first one published under Stuart Ross’ imprint at Mansfield. It collects some of the best work I’ve done since 2009’s Back Off Assassin: New and Selected Poems: list poems, prose poems, and anti-translations, tiny lyrics, non-stories, dictations by dead writers. Starting points for the poems included one of Chilean master Nicanor Parra’s longer poems, high school science experiments, Frank O’Hara’s death by dune buggy, machine intelligence, dogs, bears, loons, the Spanish Civil War, an Anne Waldman workshop, insurance risk analysis, the shy but dangerous giant gas bags of Saturn and the ever present Judy Merril and bp Nichol.


We see a real variety of real life figures in the book, from Judith Merril to Joseph Stalin. How did these specific people capture your imagination?


Actually, the book is crowded with real-life characters. Some (many) are heroes of mine. I carry them around with me constantly, like stones in my pocket, and they (sometimes literally) bleed into the poem. People like Judy Merril, bp Nichol, Nicanor Parra, Baltasar Garzon. Others aren’t heroes but arise from concerns or subject matters that I allow to inform the piece to a greater or lesser extent. Like Stalin, Jose Robles, Wile E. Coyote, Alex Trebek or the unnamed “Salvadoran man.” A list poem like “Poets of the 20th: Research Poem for Ed Sanders” demands real life figures. And occasionally people like Sam Rojas and Luis Navarro, old Chilean friends, will show up announced.


What drew you to Parra’s Christ of Elqui? How would you describe your translation?


I’ve mistranslated favourite Spanish-language poets since the early ‘80s. Stu Ross published some early ones in my 1986 Proper Tales Press book, Convincing Americans, including Parra, Alberti, Vallejo. I used to call them “translations naïf”, later mistranslations, and now I‘ve settled for the more staid (& Parra-influenced) term “anti-translations.” Treason, in Parra’s words to me earlier this year. I thought for this book, why not take on a longer work by Parra, and see where that goes. Parra’s Christ of Elqui is based on a real figure, a deranged/inspired soul who in the 1930s wandered Chile’s Elqui valley claiming to be variously, Christ or an analogue. He sermonized, performed alleged small miracles, disappeared. This was the first long piece and eventual book that Parra created and published following the Pinochet coup of 1973. I’ve always thought it a coded commentary on the coup; but I’ve failed to crack the code to date.

Describe my translation? Perverse, intentionally wrong-headed, hilarious, but one that I’m not sure that Parra would recognize as his Christ of Elqui.


Tell us about an ideal writing day for you


The ideal writing day would be the day after Harper had been humiliatingly defeated, taxes had been raised on the rich til they wept in despair, a day when the best had been full of passionate intensity while the worst had lacked all conviction, and an aggressive space exploration program had just been announced (and adequately funded).

Failing that, I wake up and some phrase, the more absurd the better, is rattling around. I write it down before I forget it. I take Bella, my dog, to Cherry Beach and she runs and runs, each time equally joyous, after a tennis ball and brings it back to me. A line or so occurs to me, I will myself to remember it, and repeat it to myself and Bella several times during the walk. I forget it briefly when a pack of dogs surrounds me, but remember part, but altered, after the dogs run off. When I get home, I write what’s left down. Then, for a change, I actually get on the stationary bike and go for a spin. I catch up with another line, and misremember that when I finally get to a piece of paper. All of a sudden, I’m way late for work, but I just need to write a few things down first. Lots of writing at work, but it’s just utilitarian rhetoric. At some point in the day, I type a message into my blackberry and mail it to myself. Back home, I order something for when Jo-Anne gets home from work and all of a sudden, there it is — two hours to play with the notes and lines and randomness. Or I start something new entirely. Or I pick up in the middle of a project to move it on a bit, after maybe editing what’s been done. The drafts get put in a pile in the upstairs office.


You spent time as both a magazine and book publisher. Did your experience on the other side of the editorial table change your writing process at all?


I wish I could say it did, but I don’t think so. I published as a fan of great writing. Different muscles were engaged.


What are your reading habits while working on a long project like this? Were there books you were reading while working on this collection? And what are you reading now?


Some specific reading was required for particular pieces, but my reading habits are fairly set. While at work on this book, non-fiction about the Spanish Civil War, the French Revolution, lives of Louis XV and XVI, a fond re-read of Emily Pohl-Weary’s terrific book based on grandmother Judy Merril’s life and loves Better to Have Loved, books about dogs, anything new by Stephen King, Spanish novelist Javier Cercas’ absolutely mind-blowing dissection of the 1982 Spanish almost-coup, Anatomy of a Moment, science fiction novels, and specifically for the “Exit Interviews” section, a review of work by the poets who dictated the individual pieces to me — including a much-needed full review of Olson’s Maximus Poems, and a lot of Ted Berrigan, Ed Dorn, Frank O’Hara, bp, old faves Roque Dalton and Leonel Rugama, and forays into Neruda’s Canto General.

Reading now? Bio of Alexander Dumas’ half-black father; the new comprehensive Spanish Civil War history, Spanish Holocaust, by Paul Preston, re-reading two old Heinleins for a project, and most poignantly, Frank Davey’s just released bio of bp, aka bp Nichol: A Preliminary Biography. And for some reason, dipping yet again into Pound’s Cantos. Plus any junk I can find.


What are you working on now?


A possible science fiction novel, more non-stories, and updating one of my 5 unpublished 3-day novels from the ‘80s, & of course trying to keep adding to that pile of poem projects in the upstairs office. & soon to take a shot at seriously mistranslating Neruda.

Jim Smith is the author of fifteen books and chapbooks published between 1979 and 2012, including Back Off, Assassin! New and Selected Poems (Mansfield Press, 2009), which was long-listed (leaked list) for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. The book also made the Indigo/Chapters first-ever Top Ten Poetry Books for National Poetry Week in April, 2010. It garnered rave reviews in Fiddlehead, ARC, Spencer Gordon’s Dangerous Literature and a number of other blogs.

For more information about Happy Birthday, Nicanor Parra please visit the Mansfield Press website.

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

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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