Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Niki Koulouris

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Niki Koulouris

Debut poet Niki Koulouris's collection the sea with no one in it (Porcupine's Quill) has been called "stunning" and "graceful" and drawn comparisons to Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood and Pat Lowther.

We spoke with Niki about her new book and her writing process. Read on to hear from this promising new poet about getting words from waves, the wisdom of Jasper Johns and rescuing a lost book from Boston.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, the sea with no one in it.

Niki Koulouris:

I guess I’m drawn to the aesthetics of syntax. I like to think that the poems are linked much like a collection of works at an art show. That the poems are unified as art works can be unified by a particular choice of media and symbols, for example. Thematically, the majority of the poems seem to be connected by the sea or places close to it, or some body of water or reference to water. There was no conscious decision to do that on my part. It just worked out that way.


So many people are captivated by the ocean. What do you think it is that attracts people so strongly, artistically and otherwise, to the sea?


I can only speak for myself because everyone approaches the sea differently both literally and figuratively speaking. For me writing is about the process of writing. The sea eventually became a screen that surprisingly lent itself to so much. It was only evident that it had become a screen after the words and images appeared. I never set out to write about the sea, I just started typing. Maybe it has to do with where I come from and what I’m used to. I’ve lived and gone to school a stone’s throw from the beach, without even going there too often. Just catching glimpses of the water now and then. So the sea had a big impact early on in my life. William Burroughs said he got words from barking dogs. Maybe I get mine from waves.


Tell us a little about how this collection came together. How did you organize the two different parts?


I felt I was too close to the poems to put them together. To me the thought of organizing them seemed more daunting than writing them. Kenneth Sherman did a great job organizing the poems into a sea-meets-land collection. I think he made a smooth transition, just like the one found at the place where land and sea meet on a fine day. I am very grateful to him for his input and advice as well.


You seem to take inspiration from such a wide variety of places, including visual art. What have some of your most unexpected sources of inspiration been while writing these poems?


There are many ekphrastic poems in the collection. I often dedicate the poems to my source of inspiration. Some sources are Jasper Johns, Philip Guston, Cy Twombly, Anselm Kiefer, Peter Booth and Maurice Sendak.

I get a great deal of energy and inspiration from visual art, music and travel. The most unexpected sources usually come from seeing, hearing or reading something new and original when I am least expecting to.

I know if I’m inspired I just have to sit down to write. It’s great when a poem comes out of the process. So I may get a real unexpected buzz from discovering a new band like The Growlers or a new beer I like. Or from catching Iggy Pop and the Stooges live. From art I’ve never seen before, or seeing art I’m familiar with in a book in a gallery for the first time, or even sitting on a train and thinking about a work of art and making sense of it for myself. Say, one of Jasper Johns’s “non symbols,” one of his flags or targets. I’ll use that energy for my own ends. Writing is a tricky business. Jasper Johns said, “working is a way of getting rid of an idea.” I can completely relate to that. To me working is typing. The re-organizing of what has been typed comes later. That’s just as important as the typing. I type to get rid of ideas so I can create poems that exist on their own terms. I can really relate to Jasper Johns’s idea that intention involves only “a fragment of our consciousness.”


What were you reading while you worked on this collection? Are there any books you found particularly influential? And what's next on your reading list?


While working on the book, I was reading mainly collected works of poetry. I also enjoyed Tom Wolfe’s essays in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. I guess I’ve been influenced in some way by poets and prose writers I enjoy reading: Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa, Christopher Logue, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, EE Cummings, William Matthews, Frederick Seidel, P.K Page and Annie Proulx.

I was just reading David Rakoff’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, until I left it in Boston a few days ago. Thankfully it was found and it’s worth the trouble of getting back. Rakoff manages to tame a meter that could really take over. Next it’s going to be Kildare Dobb’s Casanova in Venice. It’s billed as ‘A Raunchy Rhyme,’ and also written in a frolicking meter — a good choice since I’ll be on a roll by then. I expect in this case the meter will play a completely different role. Sadly these are the last books from these two authors, so they’ll be a special read.


What are you working on now?


Who knows what will emerge.

Niki Koulouris was born in Melbourne, Australia, and is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. She has worked as a staff writer and editor at Victoria University. Her poetry and prose has appeared in The Cortland Review, Space, Subtext Magazine and The Age. A beer enthusiast, she has been known to start spontaneous lists on napkins of her top India Pale Ales. Niki lives in Toronto. The sea with no one in it is her first book.

For more information about The sea with no one in it please visit the Porcupine's Quill 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.

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