An interview with Geoffrey Nilson

Geoffrey Nilson is the author of In my ear continuously like a stream (above/ground, 2017), O (Swimmer's Group, 2017), and We Have to Watch (Quilliad, 2016). His poetry and prose has appeared in various publications including Coast Mountain Culture, CV2, Lemon Hound, PRISM international, and The Capilano Review. He is a contributing editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and is currently at work on a collection of short fiction. When not exploring the weird and wonderful in his writing, he takes film photographs and educates his daughter on the merits of punk rock.

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

My writing has always been a product of my reading, and beginning at an early age, I was addicted to books. Some of my earliest memories are trips to the local library where my parents would turn me loose in the stacks. I’d come home with an armful, reading until I fell asleep in my bed with the light on (something I still do regularly). I didn’t have any dreams of being a writer, then. I just loved stories.

But at 16 I started working at the same public library I had spent so much time in as a kid, and one of my tasks was shelf-reading, where I went over a section of books one-by-one to make sure they were in order. I discovered so many different writers, so many different forms of writing, which I didn’t know existed. At the same time as stealing novels assigned to my older sister for her university classes, I found Kingsway by Michael Turner while shelf-reading, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Well not quite. I wrote for a few years, took some classes, published a little, won a contest, and then promptly quit writing in 2003 to play guitar in a band. I didn’t write again for a decade. I got married. My daughter was born. I got divorced. Quit music and went back to school. I was worried I wouldn’t know what to do anymore, but as I should have expected, once I started reading the words came too.

Every writer has doubts and feels like a failure sometimes, at least all the writers I know. We’re only as confident as our last finished piece, if that, so commiserating does help. Thankfully I can also fall back on books for motivation. There’s just nothing that excites me more about writing than reading, about the feeling I get when I read something that makes me feel less alone in the world, as if the words on the page were, as Flaubert wrote, “some vague idea you once had, some blurred image from deep down that spells out your finest feelings.”

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

Influence is a strange word. To be honest, I don’t give it a ton of thought. I’ve been asked a few times and I stumble through my answers, listing off the first writers I can think of. I will attempt to do better here.

I suppose at the formative place, where I began to love poetry, is Michael Ondaatje. His sensuous attention to language and his keen use of allusion both made me realize the poem is not limited to what I know, it can also spur me to other discoveries. Vancouver poetry of the 1960s, the TISH poets and the Downtown poets and the small press culture, they were very important too, but that poetry motivated me to create my own literary reality rather than waiting and hoping for something to happen. bpNichol is my beacon, my light. Whenever I am unsure, Nichol has something to offer me. His daring, his love, his weirdness, and his forms—they loom large for me in all the writing I do. More recently while working on a suite about the end of my marriage, I’ve been reading Lynn Crosbie and Sharon Olds. Both have unique ways to approach the confessional. I especially love Crosbie’s Liar, a book length serial that reinvents what the love poem can be.

Have you noticed a difference in the ways in which you approach the individual poem, now that you’ve had some experience putting together chapbook-length manuscripts?

I think what has changed most for me over the years is my attention to each part of the poem or the sequence. I have gotten better at keeping all my important concerns in check. I’m a writer who is comfortable in letting the writing dictate the form, so I listen to the work I am doing and let it tell me what it needs to be. I’m thinking here of Dennis Lee and his notion of “cadence.” Ideas can be expressed in different ways. I don’t create with any exacting or specific method. I try things. I make mistakes. I throw stuff out. Usually a form best suited for the content will present itself. Only after I listen to the work, sometimes I must train my ear, will a form show itself. I’m not just talking about stanzas, line breaks, and rhyme schemes, but about the line, page, and book level considerations of how an idea is manifest, about the poem as physical object and conceptual space.

Putting together a manuscript is fraught with considerations and sometimes it can be difficult for me to get enough perspective. I can obsess a little and get attached to structures as they develop. Thankfully I’ve had great editors who have helped me develop arcs for my sequences I had not considered. Editors really are the heroes of literature.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

Mentorship has been vital to my development. Without a doubt I would not be where I am without the help of many people. I am very fortunate to have studied with some fine poets in the past few years: Don Domanski at the Banff Centre, and Jen Currin, Rachel Rose, Billeh Nickerson and Aislinn Hunter at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Billeh actively encouraged me after I started writing again and his words of support gave me the confidence to pursue my path as a writer. But it was Aislinn who became my mentor over the years I completed my university degree.

I met Hunter in 2012 when I enrolled in a creative non-fiction class she was teaching, and connected with her deep well of academic and literary reference as well as her penchant for hilarious self-deprecating anecdotes. She taught me so much about how to approach big themes, how to use philosophy and art history in my poetry, and encouraged me to think in a granular way in which sequences accrue for the reader.

She was my hardest editor, calling me out when I didn’t put in enough effort, letting me know it was unacceptable to waste time with bad work. She was also my biggest champion, encouraging me to apply for residencies when I didn’t think I deserved them, and editing work for me in her office hours that had nothing to do with my classes.

Pearl Pirie wrote that a mentor is “Someone who shows you that doors exist.” I’m eternally grateful for the doors Aislinn showed me.

You are currently on the editorial board of Arc Poetry Magazine. Why was this important, and have you been learning through the process of working on a journal?

My work with Arc and other literary journals has made me appreciate all the people working in literary publishing much more because anyone who is in this racket is in it because of love. That’s a good feeling to be around and it infuses everything I do in my life. The sense of community I feel from participating in the literary culture is important to me.

For me, the whole thing of reading for a literary journal is like crate digging at a record store. It’s about the search for some unknown gem buried in the mix. Finding beauty in a batch of submissions is the same as finding it any other time: delightful.

Your author biography mentions that you’re working on a collection of short fiction. What is the difference between working on poems to working on short stories? Are you able to work on both poetry and fiction concurrently?

Fiction is an entirely different process and I really need to separate it. Poetry is so idiosyncratic for me, and I expect the reader to participate, collaborate in making meaning. But when I write fiction, I think much more about readers and about what the story is trying to say to them. It also just takes more physical time to develop a story from beginning to end, from idea to completion. More words, more drafts, more frustration when I toss out something that isn’t working.

Prose writing in general is more structured and doesn’t usually reward leaps of tangential fancy. I don’t malign the restrictions. I enjoy the opportunity to create within them. Like my approach with listening to form, I listen to the story and let it determine how and in what voice it wants to be told.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Matea Kulić. 

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