the description itself must happen

To Pal-Zet, from Skarżysko-Kam.

After reading the enclosed verses we conclude that you don't sense the fundamental difference between poetry and prose. The poem entitled "Here," for instance, offers a modest prose description of a room and the furniture it holds. In prose, such descriptions serve a strict defined purpose: they provide the backdrop against which the action will take place. At any moment the door will open, someone will enter, something will happen. In poetry, the description itself must happen. Everything is important, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, and the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room becomes a discovery of that room before our eyes, the emotion accompanying that discovery becomes our own. The prose writer slices sentences into lines with infinite care - but his prose stays prose. Worse still - nothing happens.

- Wisława Szymborska, replying to the "Literary Mailbox" in Literary Life magazine. As collected in her book How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors.


An Interview with Michael Hingston

The following interview was originally published in June 2011 on Michael Hingston's Too Many Books in the Kitchen blog. 

Michael Hingston: You've published your poetry widely for a number of years now, but The Other Side of Ourselves marks your full-length debut. While preparing it, how much did you think about the first impression you were giving off to the poetry world at large? Did you try and make the collection somehow representative of your identity as a poet (interests, sensibilities)—or was it simply a clearing house for the previous year's worth of work?

Rob Taylor: A damn good question to start off. In preparing my initial manuscript I was concerned that I show my diversity, covering a variety of forms, themes, and techniques that, hopefully, would provide something for every reader (and critic!). When the book was accepted by Cormorant, however, my editor (Robyn Sarah) aggressively cut out the poems that didn't fit in the main lyrical vein. More specifically, she cut out the poems that were showy but hollow - that sounded more interesting than they felt. This freaked me out, as these days the Canadian poetry world seems much more focused on technique than content, and when it comes to content, plain-spoken emotion is on the outs. And here was my editor cutting out the technically sophisticated poems and replacing them with less technically-torqued, but more heartfelt, poems...

I argued with Robyn about this for a short while, but then I sat back and thought about what I was trying to do, which was to produce a great book, not cover my ass. I decided that I’d rather make a book that felt cohesive than a “safe” hodgepodge of poems. I knew I would get a tongue-lashing for that from those in different aesthetic camps (and I already have), but that seemed a small sacrifice for producing a more purposeful, emotionally resonant, book.

MH: That review in the National Post was interesting—it posits that poets can either be "cool", or else they can genuinely engage with human feelings and interactions. You were deemed to be the latter. What do you think of that binary, and your place in it? Are those two things really incompatible?

RT: In the reviewer’s defense, it’s hard to put “hooks” on poetry books, and trying to do so often leads to goofy binaries. Not doing so, though, makes it hard to write a cohesive short review (especially when covering multiple books). It’s best not to take the rhetoric of the short review too seriously.  

As for my place in the goofy binary, I’m certainly comfortable being the genuine, uncool guy. When asked about clarity and simplicity in his poetry, W.S. Merwin said that he wanted, ultimately, for the reader to feel like they’d written the poems themselves. That is a more interesting and fulfilling goal to me than being “cool”, which as a posture is more concerned with the author than the reader.

All that said, of course, “cool” and genuine aren’t incompatible, so long as your understanding of “cool” is sophisticated enough to require honesty, vulnerability, and humility.

MH: Diplomatic to the end! Let's back up a little: you and I met in 2005 at Simon Fraser University, a weird little mountaintop school just outside of Vancouver. I knew of you as a poet from the very beginning, thanks to High Altitude Poetry, the quarterly campus zine you co-founded. Can you tell me a little about how poetry had entered your life so early—and what inspired you to branch out and create your own outlet for it?

RT: I didn’t come to poetry until mid-way through my History degree at SFU – at the time, it felt like I was coming to it very late. I began accumulating poems, here and there, by W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, W.C. Williams, etc. that I couldn’t shake from my head. Al Purdy was the first Canadian poet to worm his way in there, and that was a turning point for me: until then I hadn’t thought of poetry as something that Canadians could do. 

I helped found High Altitude Poetry having only written a dozen or so poems. That was less rash than when, one year prior to HAP, I founded SFU’s curling club having only curled once before. In both cases I was motivated partly out of personal interest and partly out of my bewilderment that SFU didn’t have pre-existing clubs for these things. Seriously, pre-2001 SFU students, what was the deal with that?

HAP was easier to found than the curling club because there was a group of us running it, led by Stephen Buckley. Oh, and the zine was published bi-monthly, not quarterly... we never would have reached 10,000 copies with such a lackadaisical publishing schedule. 

MH: And what, specifically, was the moment you switched from "poetry as something Canadians could do" to "poetry as something you could do"? Were you at all self-conscious about taking the plunge?

RT: It wasn't my first poem, but the first time I set an extended period of time aside specifically to write poetry was on a vacation in Campbell River (I had the travel budget of a poet long before I considered myself one). I spent a whole afternoon at the beach, staring out at the ocean and waiting for something to happen. Eventually something did, and while in hindsight the poem was terrible (seven metered, rhyming stanzas comparing my soul to a pebble), it was exhilarating at the time. I've been addicted to that thrill ever since. 

I only became self-conscious about my poetry when I first shared it with others, which happened at the second HAP meeting (yes, I helped found a poetry club having never shared my poems with anyone - rash, as I said). My heart wasn't in my throat, but it was definitely making plans to relocate. Luckily, those first few poems had jokes in them, and I got laughs, which as reactions go is inferior to the "poetry noise" ("mmm" or "ah" or my personal favourite, "hm"), but was more than enough on that day. Since then, both the quality of the poems and my self-consciousness about them have increased steadily, almost in tandem.

MH: Something I've always found intimidating about poetry is how delicate and intricate and ornate a form it is. If poetry is building a ship in a bottle, a novel is more like building an actual ship. What makes a poem successful to you—both as a writer and a reader?

RT: I’ve never thought of poetry as delicate or ornate, though it is often intricate (and occasionally intimidating). I mostly think of it as big things compressed into small vessels – in this sense your ship-in-bottle metaphor is fitting. But the metaphor is also deceptive – the ship in the bottle is small, and the difficulty is in constructing it within the constraints of the bottle; the poem, on the other hand, only appears small and the difficulty only appears to be writing the poem within the constraints of the form (this is especially true for formal poems, sonnets, sestinas, etc.). In fact, the poem is incredibly large and the difficulty is in fitting something incredibly large into something much smaller without damaging it, so that down the road the reader can unpack it and restore it to its original size (or possibly an even larger size). So it’s more like a zip file than a ship in a bottle, I suppose. In this sense, a poem is no different than a novel, except that in a great poem the zip file is more efficiently compressed.

There are so many things that can make a poem successful. I’m not of the opinion that a poem must last through the ages (must “help prolong the Latin names around the base”, as Larkin put it in “An Arundel Tomb”) in order to be a success. If it offers catharsis to writer or reader, challenges an assumption, produces a laugh – any of these are greater accomplishments than many works of art achieve, and should be relished. 

Perhaps more helpful here would be my thoughts on the ideal poem: for me, the ideal poem gives pleasure immediately on first reading. What that specific pleasure is – a laugh, an insight, a turn of phrase, a certain rhythm or rhyme scheme – is not overly significant, what matters is that there is pleasure first. As Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom”, to which W.S. Merwin added “And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight.” Both ring true to me. 

The second requirement is that the pleasure produces a curiosity, and a desire to re-read the poem. On subsequent readings, the poem then needs to prove layered and nuanced enough to consistently release new bits of pleasure and induce new bouts of curiosity, every reading encouraging another, accruing pleasure along the way. To make a poem that lasts like that indefinitely is probably impossible, but there are certainly some poems that are still alive for me after dozens of readings. I hope one day to be able to produce a similar poem for others, as the great poets of the past have done for me.

MH: How do you think SFU specifically affected your development as a poet?

RT: As I’ve touched on above, SFU shaped my development as a poet by its absences, and the opportunities those absences granted me. I don’t think my story is unique – SFU is a school with a short history and an often indifferent student body. If anything has developed as a tradition at SFU, it’s that if you want to see something happen, you better make it happen yourself. I found that to be liberating.

When it came to poetry specifically, for those outside of the English department there were few venues to share and discuss poetry, either in person or in print (for instance, the English department’s presence in general campus life was so minimal that I didn’t learn of the existence of SFU’s literary magazine, West Coast Line, until my 4th year). Even after helping establish High Altitude Poetry, I felt like an outsider in SFU’s writing community, which made it easier for me to do my own thing without fear of repercussions. 

While at SFU I wrote hundreds of poems and sent them off to dozens of magazines - I started with The New Yorker and worked my way down. At first, everything was rejected (and, in hindsight, probably ridiculed around editing tables), but eventually a few magazines took interest. By the time my book was accepted I had over one hundred poems published in magazines, journals and anthologies. 

In the last few years I’ve gotten to meet a number of talented emerging writers who have hardly begun to “emerge” because they are too afraid to send their work out. Almost all of them have taken a creative writing program of one sort or another, and most have spent a decent amount of money studying their craft as well. Because of all this, the pressure they feel to succeed, or at least to not make asses of themselves, seems to paralyze them. If I’d taken the same path I probably would have been paralyzed as well. Even now, the more I learn about the publishing world, especially how small and sharp-edged it can be, the more hesitant I am to put work out there. To an extent, that caution is a good thing (there are many things I wish I’d held back on), but I’m still glad that I was comparatively reckless early on. 

No matter how much you prepare and polish and incubate your work, you’re going to make a fool of yourself at the beginning. And you’ll keep making a fool of yourself for years afterward, probably for your whole life. Lord knows I haven’t stopped. But if you keep at it this miraculous thing happens - people read your work, take it into themselves, and turn it into something more beautiful and mysterious than you ever could have imagined on your own. To be able to spend your life being a part of that process is humbling, and well worth pushing through those first nervous steps. 

I didn’t learn that at SFU, instead I was so enthusiastic and ignorant that I failed to realize I was supposed to be nervous. SFU deserves some of the credit for that.


A Real Donnie Brasco Situation: An Interview with Shaun Robinson

 An excerpt from this interview was published in CV2 Magazine's Fall 2021 issue


Chelsea Motel - Shaun Robinson

A man on the sidewalk carries a chair on his head 
like a set of cast-iron antlers. It must be nice 
to always have somewhere to sit, though hard 
on the neck. I probably look that awkward 
bearing my clumsy love through all these doorways 
and Tuesdays, trying not to get tangled in awnings. 
If it were fabric, I’d drape it over my arm to save you 
a seat in the restaurant. It’s weird, Chelsea. 
Whenever I text to ask what I should order, 
my phone changes Malbec to becalm, like a bartender 
saying I’ve had one too many. Let’s settle 
for Caesars and hope they don’t turn into race cars 
by the time they get to the table. Back at my motel, 
there’s a sign on the wall that starts a sentence 
with If you discover a fire and ends it with a map. 
As if fire were some new Florida and we were at sea 
on a queen-sized raft. But you can find fire 
anywhere, Chelsea. If you ask at the desk, 
they’ll give you a book of matches. 
And the waiter is moving from table to table 
with a lighter and a candle.

Reprinted with permission from 
(Brick Books, 2020).


Shaun Robinson’s poetry has appeared in The Puritan, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Poetry Is Dead, and the Rusty Toque, and received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2018 Poem of the Year contest. Born in 100 Mile House, BC, Robinson has lived in Vancouver since 2006. He studied in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program, where he served as the poetry editor of PRISM international. He is also the author of the chapbook Manmade Clouds and currently works as an editor for the chapbook press Rahila’s Ghost. If You Discover a Fire is his debut collection.


Rob Taylor: It doesn't take long to discover a fire in your debut collection, If You Discover a Fire (Brick Books, 2020). The book's opening poem features matches and cigarettes, and some manifestation of fire/matches/flames appears in more than a quarter of the poems (yes, I counted!). What is it about fire, and the potential for fire, that keeps you returning to it? Are you part moth?

Shaun Robinson: Fire is both completely common and kind of magical, which is what I'm aiming for in my poems. I'm thinking in particular of the free books of matches you can get at a hotel or restaurant or gas station—it’s a minor miracle that a little strip of paper with a few chemicals on the end can turn into this tiny jewel of flame, and then flame can light a cigarette or candle or campfire or barbeque, or light up a dark room, or burn a letter, or start a forest fire. Fire is a very powerful force that many of us carry around in our pockets without giving it a second thought. 

RT: You certainly give it second, third, fourth, fifth…. thoughts! One of your “fiery” poems, "How Soon, How Likely, How Severe," jumped out at me when I read it in ARC, and I selected it for inclusion in Best Canadian Poetry 2019. In your author’s note at the back of BCP 2019, you write that you were required to take a Forest Fire Suppression course while working on a tree-planting crew. How did that experience—both the training and the working all day in a tinder box, planting new little matches—influence how you wrote about fire?

SR: I think they're different kinds of fire. The fire in most of my poems is a metaphor or a turn of phrase—the title of the book, for example, comes from the emergency maps posted in apartments and offices and hotels. This was more of a work poem than anything for me. I was interested in the jargon, in the concrete images I came across doing the work, in what it was like to get through a fifteen hour work day or a fourteen day shift. In what you have to shut down in yourself to get through that. 

RT: Getting through long days of manual labour features in a number of your poems: at one point in If You Discover a Fire, you describe your years of tree-planting as carrying "a tiny forest in a pair of bags / on my hips, wandering through the aftermath of catastrophe, wondering where I should put it." It's tempting to draw comparisons between tree planting and poem writing—placing and placing these little possibilities in the ground and hoping they'll grow—but in other ways, of course, they are wildly different. Did you write much while you were tree planting? 

SR: I would write almost nothing in the course of a tree-planting season. On a good day off I might take down a few lines in a notebook, but in general I've found that manual labour makes impossible the kind of sustained attention that allows me to produce poetry. 

RT: Though you didn’t write, did you learn anything that has proved useful in your writing life?

SR: The valuable thing I got from bush work was time. When I was younger I could make enough in four or five months to take the rest of the year off. I had much more freedom in the off-season to pursue my art than I would have in a normal profession that required year-round attendance.
RT: In "The Future Lives Here" you write:

I couldn't believe I'd moved to the city
to be trapped in a truck
with this Prince George hick,
a dead ringer for every man I'd known
in seventeen small-town years.

You were raised in 100 Mile House, but have spent most of your adult life in Vancouver. What parts of the region do you miss and desire to hold on to? Like the guy in his truck, what elements of small-town life in the Cariboo can you not quite escape?

SR: It's too long of a story for a literary bio, so I don't usually go into it, but I actually grew up in three different B.C. towns—first 100 Mile House, then Terrace for a year, then Kitimat for essentially my entire adolescence. I also studied English at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops for a couple years before dropping out, spent a winter in hostel in downtown Victoria between tree-planting seasons when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, and moved to the West Kootenays for two years. And even though I've been in Vancouver since 2006, until recently I would spend up to six or seven months of the year in various town in the interior or on the island. 

So I really have a hard time talking about the dualities of city and country, then and now, etc. I will say that I have a much less reverent conception of nature than most of my city friends. I'm aware of how much of what people think of as “natural” is almost completely permeated by human activity and technology, of how apparent wilderness is actually interwoven with omnipresent infrastructure of resource extraction. Environmentalism has made people more aware of how constructed “nature” is, but it’s one thing to know it academically and another to participate in it. 

RT: How do you think your upbringing, and your ping-ponging in and out of the city, has allowed you see Vancouver differently?

SR: I have a completely different class background from all of my friends in the city. My parents and their siblings were loggers, miners, soldiers, truckers, receptionists, mechanics. Some of them made good money at different points along the curve of various boom-and-bust cycles, but as a rule they didn't have post-secondary educations and they didn't have professional jobs. I still have a hard time at dinner parties. We didn't have those when I was a kid—we had huge, messy gatherings, three or four generations of the extended family eating in someone's huge back yard off of paper plates, dogs and babies running free underfoot, the kids sneaking off to build forts or chase cows or get into fights. I am not good at the very subtle war of manners of a middle-class dinner table. It makes me squirm and drink too much and mistime my jokes. 

That being said, I moved to Vancouver when I was 26. I've now lived here longer than I have anywhere else. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree. If there weren't a worldwide pandemic I would drink one to two espresso drinks every day and visit several thrift stores and maybe write a poem. I'm more Vancouver than I am not. 

RT: As a lifelong Vancouverite who’s never drunk an espresso, I reluctant accept that the rest of your description is accurate… 

In "Stereognostic" you write "I want to know [the poem] / the way the kids with sticks know where to swing." This recalled for me Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" in which students beat a poem "with a hose / to find out what it really means," though the two are saying different things. Has what it means to "know" a poem shifted for you over the years?

SR: I loved that you picked "Stereognostic" (from the Greek words for "solid" and "knowledge") as a reference point for this particular question. The “knowledge” in question is sensory and tactile, more instinctive than cerebral. I was definitely one of the students Collins was talking about at one point, treating a poem like an archaeological site through which I had to carefully dig for hidden meaning. These days I think of a poem as a vinyl record. The reader's mind is the record player’s needle. In other words, I think that, regardless of the intentions of the author, whatever sensations occur in the mind of the reader when they read the poem are the poem. A poem is a kind of incantation—the words on the page are just words until someone reads them. When you read it, you're casting a spell, and the spell is the poem. 

RT: Your path to understanding the spell of a poem has involved both in-classroom environments—you mentioned earlier your MFA from UBC—and extended periods outside academia. Could you talk about that journey? 

SR: For most of my life I was primarily a fiction writer. I tried to write poetry, and read a lot of it, but most of my models were older: Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, people like that. All writers I still enjoy, but not exactly emblems of the twenty-first century zeitgeist. 

The first two contemporary poets I found who really spoke to me were Ben Lerner and Patricia Lockwood. I found some of Lerner's sonnets from his first book on the Paris Review website—they were funny and absurd and played with the vernacular in a way that really appealed to me. I remember one poem of his that ended with the line "The chicken is a little dry and/or you've ruined my life." I loved that irreverence. 

The first Patricia Lockwood poem I read was a very long poem about Popeye called "When We Move Away From Here, You'll See a Clean Square of Paper Where His Picture Hung." It blew me away because of the way she turned the poem's reality on its head midstream, how something that was a metaphor in one line became real in the next. Her poems were like Looney Tunes poems—the Roadrunner painting a tunnel on the side of a mountain and then running through it. 

I have to say that both of them were bad influences on my writing for a long time. I definitely have a couple of poems in the book from the phase when I wanted to be Patricia Lockwood. 

RT: You edit for Rahila's Ghost Press, a Vancouver-based chapbook publisher established by fellow UBC MFA grad Mallory Tater, and you also served the poetry editor at PRISM international. How have those experiences influenced how you thought about your own writing and publishing?

SR: More and more I see literature as the expression of a community's collective activity rather than the work of an individual author. Before I was as close as I am now to the means of production, I thought of books as things that authors wrote and readers read, without considering how they got from one to the other. Now I see it as more of a web—writers are readers, readers are editors, editors are writers, etc.

RT: Yes, there’s little linear about it; instead all this talking back and forth and across. Similarly, a poet’s books and chapbooks can talk to one another. I love when a poet publishes a chapbook soon before a book, with both featuring the same poems: it provides so many opportunities to compare and contrast! 

Your chapbook Manmade Clouds (Frog Hollow, 2017) contains earlier versions of 40% of the poems in If You Discovered a Fire (yes, I did more counting!). While you left some of the poems unchanged, you altered many, with the biggest edits coming around shortened line lengths and, most notably, endings. "Tuesday" lost its last three lines (in a fifteen line poem!), while "Your Love Will Help a Child in Need" lost the last two, and a whopping 19 of the final 22 lines in "I Used to Walk Around With a Tiny Forest" up and disappeared. 

Were these reductions (in word count and shape) the product of new thinking about your poetry, or the editorial intervention of your Brick editor (John Barton), or both?

SR: If I recall, I think the edit to “Tuesday” was suggested by Karen Solie, who was my thesis advisor during my MFA. The other big edits were of my own prerogative. I'm a tireless meddler when it comes to poems, which is one of the reasons it's taken me longer than the average person to publish a first book. Some edits were because I was never happy with the poems in the first place but had to eventually let go of them for the sake of the chapbook publication, and some were the natural product of having a poem lie around for several years—eventually you're no longer the same person who wrote the poem, and you try to turn it into the poem the person you've now become would have written. 

RT: I think this is how people end up never publishing books at all! 

Your poems aren’t just written and edited by different people, they are written to them, too: "Tyler," in particular, is a recurring character in If You Discovered a Fire, with three of the book's best poems written to him directly (whoever he is - it's never really made clear). 

Epistolary poems of this type are popular in the UBC-Rahila's Ghost circle of poets, with recent books by Mallory Tater, Adèle Barclay, Kyla Jamieson and Kayla Czaga all featuring poems directly addressed to someone else (and, often enough, each other). What's going on with all these letter-poems? 

SR: I think everyone was reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets and Chris Kraus's I Love Dick, both epistolary books of indeterminate genre. Kayla mentions the Kraus book in one of her Kyla poems, in fact. I was also personally influenced by Adèle's letter poems. I met Adèle right at the start of my MFA and I remember her using the phrase “the poetics of coterie,” speaking, I think, of the New York School poets, O'Hara and Koch and Ashbery. These poets were influences as well, I believe—they also liked to address their work to one another. O'Hara's famous formulation is that a poem is the equivalent to a phone call, but millennials don't like to talk on the phone so they write letters instead.  

RT: Why Tyler, specifically (or could it have been anyone)?  

SR: Tyler came into being when I was taking an instructional skills workshop as a TA in grad school. The instructor was talking about how to encourage students during classroom participation exercises and gave, as an example of encouragement, the phrase, “That's a terrific question, Tyler.” I think “terrific” is a hilarious word—it's very corny and old-fashioned. It sounds like sock hops and going steady. It's a golden retriever of a word. So I wrote the phrase down in my book, and it morphed into the title of the poem “Tyler, You're Terrific.” The Tyler character took on some of the qualities of the word “terrific”—bumbling and overly enthusiastic, trying hard and never quite succeeding. 

The poem was also influenced by the book “Tina” by Peter Davis, especially the exasperated tone of the relationship between Tyler and the poem's speaker. 

RT: You had me convinced he was a real person! 

Despite the omnipresence of fire (and Tyler), at the end of the day If You Discovered a Fire comes across as a general collection. It's also a book that clocks in at less than 70 pages. Both of those things feel rare in our current moment of longer, themed collections. Were both aspects of the book important to you? As a reader of poetry, what do you find yourself gravitating toward these days?

SR: I absolutely wanted this to be a collection of poems rather than a more unified work. I usually gravitate toward general collections. To me, each poem is its own world with its own physics and geography. 

The length of the collection, on the other hand, has more to do with my perfectionism and the glacial pace of my process than anything else. These are literally all the poems that I had in the world that I was willing to include in a manuscript. I do think that these particular poems could have become tiresome if the book went on for much longer than it did—they're not dense, exactly, but they're busy, crowded poems. I'm always afraid of overstaying my welcome. 

RT: Perhaps in line with your perfectionist tinkering, in "Year of the Monkey" you write about a man "sanding a section of awning tube / to make its surface rougher and more adherent." You then later add "The truth is / a certain amount of surface roughness is necessary," alluding, at least in part, to writing. What, to you, is the "surface roughness" in a poem that allows it to adhere to a reader? 

SR: I gravitate to the inelegant in a poem. I like the pathos of a metaphor that swings for the fences and doesn't quite connect. I like a poem that deliberately misunderstands a phrase or contradicts itself or forgets who its speaker was. “It's important to get things wrong,” according to my poem “Trivia Night.” By which I mean, partly, that I'd rather be rough and messy and adventurous than small and tidy and perfect.  

RT: And yet you say you’re a perfectionist when it comes to your poems! Do you see a contradiction there? Or is there such a thing as a perfected imperfect poem?

SR: I've definitely been guilty of spending too much time trying to manufacture elegant imperfections. It usually doesn’t work. I think the productive imperfections tend to come in the early drafting process, and part of what I'm doing in future drafts is trying to preserve those imperfections while strengthening the connective tissues and tightening the seams. Editing is kind of like restoring a heritage home—I don't want to get rid of what makes it special, but I have to make sure the house doesn't collapse. 

RT: I love that idea of sheltering certain necessary imperfections away from the brutalities of the editing process. It’s no easy feat to pull off. Speaking of poems-as-construction-projects, in an interview with Kevin Spenst on Wax Poetic Radio, you described your compositional process as assembling "piles of metaphors [you] found in different places." Can you talk about that a bit more? Your poems generally hold together with a linear narrative, so how do you go from the piles to the linear poem?  

SR: This might be one of those things that has more to do with the process than the product. I have some poems that begin as narratives and stay that way, but more often than not they begin as images or phrases in a notebook, and at some point I conceive of some kind of formal or narrative framework as an excuse to string them together. There are a few poems where this is more obvious, like “Tyler, You're Terrific” or the book's final poem, “Transactive Memory,” but I think in other cases there's a real Donnie Brasco situation where the poems have been living undercover for so long that they start believing their own lies. As I said earlier, I don't believe the author's intent is important, so this statement is more about how the poems come to be than about the final shape they take in a reader's mind. 

RT: Ha! May “Donnie Brasco situation” enter the editor’s lexicon! You often had me laughing while reading If You Discovered a Fire, though the poems, generally speaking, are serious in nature. Could you talk about the role of humour in your writing? What does the addition of a joke do to an otherwise serious poem?

SR: The essence of drama is that every word means something, every action has consequence, and our choices matter. I don't believe any of that. I think like itself is essentially comedic—it's absurd and incomprehensible and riddled with failure, but sometimes its failures rhyme is a way that's absolutely hilarious. I think humour can help you get closer to some very dark subjects. There's something life affirming about certain kinds of black humour—Samuel Beckett, for example—where for the sake of a joke you can gaze longer than normal at human misery, in a way that would be unbearable with a straight dramatic tone. 

RT: Your poems carry a flaneurial, funny, subtly surreal energy reminiscent of Frank O'Hara and James Tate. You mentioned O’Hara here earlier, and James Tate elsewhere, as influences. Could you talk about the impact their writing had on your own? Who would you point to as other major influences?

SR: More than either O'Hara or Tate, I'm influenced by writers I think of as having descended from them, such as Lockwood and Berman, who I mentioned earlier. I think the influence of Tate is very obvious with both of them. Berman even studied with him. And I think someone like Richard Siken, who was a huge influence on me, has a lot in common with O'Hara, from the preoccupation with art to the casual diction, though Siken's tone has a much more emotionally intense register. 

I like how O'Hara engaged with culture—he had contemporaries that might as well have been in ancient Rome as far as their images and allusions were concerned. O'Hara has paintings and oceans in his poems, but he also has Coca-Cola and newspapers and Billie Holiday. He lives in the same world as his readers. 

RT: Another artist whose work was filled with Coca-Cola and newspapers was the photographer Fred Herzog, who captured scenes of Vancouver street life in the '50s and '60s. If You Discovered a Fire features a poem about him entitled, "The Man Who Took Photos of Windows." Would you consider him an influence, in line with the others?

SR: I saw a display of Herzog's photos at a gallery probably about ten years ago and I loved them. I do think that there's something of a shared aesthetic between his photos and my poems. Street photography is an acquisitive practice. You're walking around and picking things up, images and signs and buildings and people. It's very much the flaneurial poem. 

RT: As you mentioned earlier, you've been at work on this book for a long time (references in some of the poems seem to place them pre-2010). Not to rush you, then, but do you have any thoughts towards what you are going to write next?  I'm certainly looking forward to whatever it might be.

SR: It has been a long time! The oldest poem in this book was written for Rhea Tregebov's poetry lecture class in the fall of 2012. I've been trying to piece together some new poems in the last few months, and I'd really like to write more about work. There are a few work poems in this book, but I think I have more to say about work and class and money and gender that I couldn't quite express in this book. 

RT: Whenever that new work (on work) arrives, I’ll very much be looking forward to it.


You can relish all those years of making by picking up If You Discover a Fire at your local bookstore, or via the Brick Books website or, if you must, from Amazon.