An interview with Grant Wilkins

Grant Wilkins is a printer, small press publisher and occasional poet from Ottawa whose writing has been published online at bywords.ca, by phafours press and in BafterC magazine, amongst other places. He has degrees in History & Classical Civilization and in English, and he likes ink, metal, paper, letters, sounds and words, and combinations thereof.

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

I liked the idea of writing as far back as I can remember. This always went in the direction of prose though, and for many years my ambition would have been to write “The Great Canadian Science Fiction Historical Fantasy Novel,” or some such thing. After discovering the local literary scene here in Ottawa in the early 1990s, I ended up developing a real interest in the publishing and production side of literary things, and this interest overtook any immediate inclinations I had to write.

Eventually, my ambition to write rekindled itself, but led me off into the more arcane parts of the literary landscape, in the form of sound, visual & concrete poetry, and the process writing that can go along with a lot of that.

All this is significant in terms of my current practice because while I’ve been hanging around the edges of the literary world for quite a long time, I only really got into the kind of writing that I’m doing now about 10 years ago. To my mind, I’m still quite new to all this, and I still have a lot of exploring to do.

You’ve published in a number of journals. How do you decide which journals to send to?

Getting poetry published in Canada feels like a mug’s game these days, and while I entirely understand when writers try the “saturation bombing” method of getting their work out – firing their stuff off to anyone with a printer, photocopier or website who might print it – there does seem to be a great potential for futility built into this approach.

I get the desire to find a home for something once it’s done, but I much prefer to look for venues where there’s a real sense of a conversation going on – on the page, with the readers, with the writers, and with the other works being published – and where there’s a palpable sense of exploration to the proceedings.

Have you noticed any repeated themes or repeated subject matter in your work? What are you currently working towards?

What I do is almost exclusively process writing in one form or another, so I’m always starting with a text that someone else has written or that has been drawn from another source, and proceeding from there. I guess you could say that words – what they do, how they do it, and how meaning is or isn’t created – are always, at least broadly, the subject of my work.

In terms of my current direction, I became interested in the notion of translation a while back, so I have several projects and experiments related to that that I’m working at, thinking about or otherwise exploring.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

John Cage, Jackson Mac Low and bpNichol are probably the ground state back to which most of what I’m interested in can be traced. I’m very much a follower of Cage and Mac Low’s notion of minimizing the presence of the writer’s ego in the work, and versions and variations of the chance and indeterminant techniques they explored have a lot to do with the forms of processing and text-making that I use.

bpNichol is important in my world for the breadth of what he did. The Martyrology is a masterpiece, and his book Translating Translating Apollinaire: A Preliminary Report was a real “aha!” moment for me.

More recently, both Lisa Robertson and Caroline Bergvall’s work in finding, refining and recombining textual (and visual) work has suggested some interesting directions, and my interest in translation has Armand Schwerner and Erin Moure looming large in my thinking as well.

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

It wasn’t a mentorship situation exactly, but as I was becoming more and more interested in this corner of the poetry world I ended up involved in a sound poetry performance group – one of jwcurry’s “Messagio Galore” iterations – the participants of which included curry, the late John Lavery, Roland Prevost, Carmel Purkis, Sandra Ridley and myself. I already knew everyone in the group, but getting to see them work with the material we were doing up close and personal was a tremendously formative experience, with a lot of larger and smaller revelations along the way.

This also led on to my participating in the literary responses to a series of visual artist Michèle Provost’s projects and exhibitions. Working with Michèle and her material – and getting to see her working on her visual and textual art – has had a huge impact on my own interest and work, and she probably constitutes my most significant influence. Also, working on her projects allowed me to continue working with Sandra and Carmel, who have both been helpful ongoing voices in my ear.

What are you currently working on?

That’s a harder question to answer than it should be, because in addition to writing I also have two other creative passions: letterpress printing and papermaking. I’m very project oriented and I always have a long list of projects and ideas planned or on the go – but I also tend to work slowly and in fits and starts, picking things up and putting them down again as time, deadlines and enthusiasm allows.

I do have several long-gestating writing projects that I think are getting close to fruition – including an extended translation exercise and a “reading through” project. Of course, I also have a couple of smaller translation ideas that I’d like to try out too, so I may jump on those first.

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

Chris Turnbull is an excellent poet and publisher from south of Ottawa with a wide-ranging practice in words, sounds and objects, and I’d love to see her and her work getting more attention.

Michèle Provost isn’t a poet, but as part of her visual art practice over the years she has come up with some amazing and poetic texts. The core text she composed for her “Roman Feuilleton” exhibition was a particularly brilliant piece of surrealist collage, and I think it’s a shame that her written work has been almost completely missed by the larger literary world because she’s a visual artist, and entirely ignored by the art world because it thing falls outside the borders of what they conceive to be art.

I know Sandra Ridley’s last book was shortlisted for the Griffin, but in spite of that, I don’t think she gets the attention or the respect from the official literary world that she deserves. Far too many of the people and organizations behind the prizes, positions and awards that actually allow poets to pay their rent seem to prefer celebrating the bland, the inoffensive and the easily digestible, rather than the sharp, careful, complex sort of work that Sandra does. A case of institutional mediocrity preferring the mediocre, sadly.

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