An interview with Daniel Cowper

Daniel Cowper is a poet from Bowen Island, BC, whose poems have appeared in Train, and recently in In/Words' special issue Dis(s)ent, Cascadia Rising, Southword (Ireland), and Big Smoke. He is the author of The God of Doors, a poetry chapbook with Frog Hollow Press, and his first full-length collection of poetry, Grotesque Tenderness, is forthcoming from McGill-Queen's University Press in Spring 2019.

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

I grew up on Bowen Island, BC, in a micro-culture where everyone was encouraged to practice some form of art. We were were given licence to develop whatever creative practices interested us, and my natural medium happened to be words. As an adult, writing took step after step towards the centre of my life.

Now, it would be difficult to stop writing. I feel uneasy if I allow a few days to pass without writing. After a week or two away from writing, I’m very anxious and out-of-sorts. Even if I learned to cope with the absence of writing, the eagerness I have for my unfinished projects (I always have more projects in hand or in mind than I can master) keeps me writing.

Your first full-length collection is scheduled to appear soon with McGill-Queen’s. What was the process of putting together a full-length collection, compared to putting together a chapbook? Was there a difference?

I think the change in scale does require a different approach.

With my chapbook The God of Doors, I tried to sequence the poems to make the best ones easiest to run into: I put my favourite poem first, the second strongest poem last, and put the poems I liked least in the second half of the collection.

The full-length manuscript, Grotesque Tenderness, is divided into five parts: the first, middle and last parts are discrete poem sequences, and the second and fourth sections contain themed assemblies of lyrics. The collection’s centre of gravity, a mass of grief mixed with guilt, is reflected on in the first four sections before being obsessed over in the last section.

So you could say I organized my full-length collection much as if it was a series of five chapbooks. But in Grotesque Tenderness, the poems are organized to follow a coherent exploration of the underlying themes, regardless of how fond I am of them. With so many poems in one book, I thought it was important to create a navigable and satisfying route from cover to cover.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

I expect most poets have a ‘first’ contemporary poet, who shows them it is still possible to write poetry. For me, that happened to be William Logan. I read “The Saint and The Crab” in the New Yorker when I was about 20. After that, I sought out some of Logan’s books, and poems like Blues for Penelope, Punchinello in Chains, and After a Line by F. Scott Fitzgerald persuaded me that words could still work miracles. Logan is often criticized on account of his own (sometimes theatrically harsh) criticism of other poets, and while that may be fair, I’m in his debt.

There are too many poets I’ve learned craft from to answer this question properly. I could tell you about Edith Sitwell’s sound patterning, or the way Richard Wilbur and Joachim du Bellay taught me to develop the thought of a poem. I could talk about how T.S. Eliot builds his big poems out of bite-sized pieces, or how he cloaks what’s really on his mind in ambiguous imagery. But any of those topics are essays in themselves.

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

As you might guess from my answer about influences, I feel that much of my development as a poet has come from careful study of poems I admire, by poets I’ve never met. In the last couple years, my wife, Emily Osborne, has been a constant source of encouragement, good advice, and insight, and has certainly helped my writing develop.

I have never taken a creative writing course, and I have never worked closely with a single mentor over a sustained period of time. Instead, I’ve relied on the fellowship of other poets in poetry workshops, such as the Algonquin Square Table, in Toronto. The encouragement and support I’ve received from other poets in the workshopping context has been of enormous importance to me, both as a writer and a human being.

I’m also grateful to Shane Nielson, who chose The God of Doors for publication, and whose encouragement was essential to my actually getting a book manuscript submitted to publishers instead of gathering glitches on a hard-drive.

What are you currently working on?

This past summer I set out to avoid bleakness and negativity in my writing. Since then I’ve been dwelling on some unexpected ideas (why mind-body dualism?) but overall I’ve gladly found myself expressing more praise and fewer complaints.

I have a pair of book-length prose projects that need some revision - a novella and a novella-length fairy tale. Both are “nearly finished,” and have been for some time. It is extremely challenging for me to make enough time to work effectively on those prose manuscripts, so progress feels glacial.

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

Emily Osborne is my favourite poet, hands-down. I’m biased, of course, but I can’t help that. Emily’s chapbook Biometrical is available from Anstruther Press.

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