An Interview with Ken Babstock

Carolin Seeliger

Sharon Caseburg: Congratulations on last year’s Griffin Prize win for Methodist Hatchet (House of Anansi Press, 2011). Over the course of your career you’ve been nominated for or have won several prestigious Canadian poetry awards. What does the Griffin Prize win mean for you personally?

Ken Babstock: Thank you, Sharon. And we’re off! Already trying to walk a fine line between seeming gracious, humble, etc. while responding honestly to the question. The weird thing about prizes is how brief their effect on your internal world actually is. I have no problem recalling the elation and excitement and just uncomplicated joy that announced itself along with the news of winning a prize like the Griffin. I felt sort of cosmically grateful for a time. Like world events were conspiring to validate all the frustrations that accompany pursuing poetry as an art. Sadly, that interior lift is so very brief. I felt big and bloated and giddy for approximately a week. And then, I’m afraid, reverted right back to the usual internal script (known to many writers) of doubt and interrogation and a general state of internal dissatisfaction or agitation. It’s just my own natural loop. I’ve been told by a mental health care professional that, for certain individuals, the amount of anxiety involved in accepting “good” things occurring in one’s life exactly equals the anxiety you’d expect from obviously “bad” things happening in that same life. I think we’d be on safe ground calling it an anxiety disorder. Now I realize this all sounds emotionally strangled and spiritually constricted and even possibly ungracious, but I’m only pointing to a simple truth — that, like any high, the high of professional validation and reward doesn’t last. One remains always grateful that it happened while remaining incapable of reviving or replicating the euphoria. It’s not hard to see where it would lead if a writer internalized the receiving of an award for their poetry as any sort of reflection or comment on their character — or even their work, for that matter. Yikes.

SC: And professionally?

KB: All of the preceding leads, obviously, into your next question, which is easier to answer and I’d think would be easily deduced. Professionally, it can make a bit more stuff happen. Not an awful lot, yet, to be honest, but invitations to read, invitations to submit poems to journals, along with a bit of media exposure, certainly. All of which I’m incredibly grateful for and feel very very lucky about. It sits there on the CV and either does its little haulage work or it doesn’t.

SC: How did you come to write poetry? When did you start to think of yourself as a professional writer?

KB: Like a great many people I was a scribbler in my youth. Half-obsessed with song lyric and half with poetry (or my very naïve and youthful notion of same at the time). I just never grew out of it. I was in love with something I had a very incomplete understanding of, and in many ways I remain in that condition now. Later, I stumbled into a creative writing class in my one year at Concordia University in Montreal; I literally wasn’t aware Irving Layton was teaching the course until I sat down and he’d introduced himself. He was an example of a living writer still taking the art (in advanced years) extremely seriously. He showed us passion for the art, if not a lot else.

SC: What did your family think about your career choice?

KB: This is difficult to answer with any accuracy for two reasons. First being I can’t think when they, or I, might have surmised I’d actually made any sort of a choice. It all must have looked, to anyone observing (especially parents), like a series of negative choices. Not choosing to continue post-secondary education, not choosing some other obvious skill set. I appeared unmoored and shiftless and directionless and probably extremely unhappy. At the very least partaking in a precarious and tenuous form of existence. So it must have looked to them like a version of the 20th century cliché of misspent youth, just extended well into adult years. I have siblings and they were busy attempting some viable transition into adulthood themselves, so I’m not sure how much thought they gave it. So, basically, for some years, there was nothing in particular to “respond” to. It wasn’t until I was 29 and my first book appeared that there was suddenly material evidence I’d been doing anything other than getting on with it. My brothers said congratulations. As did my mother, at some point. She seemed impressed or perplexed, but very pleased for me. Families are constellations of disproportionate or asymmetric needs. Much later on, after a few more books, I remember my younger brother advising me, apropos of expectations directed toward family members with regard to my own work, “You’re expecting too much. Don’t expect anything.” I don’t know how he got there before I did, but he did. And it’s true. Family is family but they’re under no contract obliging them to behave in any particular way.

SC: You’ve noted in other interviews that your year-long writer’s residency in Berlin was both good for your work and your immediate family. Can you elaborate further? Does your family typically accompany you to professional writing opportunities such as residencies, colonies or retreats?

KB: By “good for my family” I believe I just meant that being together on an adventure in a beautiful city in a different culture and having more time, day-to-day, to spend on/for each other was a great gift.

I don’t “typically” go to residencies, colonies or retreats; so, neither do they. The International Artist’s Residency in Berlin was hosted by the DAAD [German Academic Exchange Service] and structurally allowed for (paid for) the families of artists to come along. It was the only way I’d have been able to take up the residency. I can’t imagine there are too many writers willing to leave their family (especially if it includes young children) behind for a full year. And conversely, I don’t think there are too many residencies that make it possible to attend along with children and spouse, at least not for that sort of duration. So the Berlin trip was a wonderful exception. My wife was able to engineer an unpaid leave from her job, and my son was young enough that leaving for a year wasn’t going to disrupt his life in any meaningful way. We were immensely fortunate that it all came together.

SC: Why do you elect to allow your family to accompany you when many writers look at retreats and residencies as opportunities to focus on their work outside of a familial/domestic environment?

KB: What can I say, they are my family. It was an entire year! I enjoy doing things with them and would not have separated myself from them for 12 months. If having a family or being in a domestic environment was going to preclude writing; then I shouldn’t have had a family. I can certainly see the benefits of a short-term residency alone in order to work. But anything of any substantial time means doing it together, I would think. Just the notion of looking my wife and son in the eye and claiming, “I can feel the muse about to visit. And for that reason I’ve elected to spend 12 months in the south of France, leaving the two of you to fend for yourselves. Good luck!” It’s abdication and neglect, I think, and takes part in a long, shameful history of male privilege I’d like to try and resist.

SC: How do you think the material you were working on in Berlin may have differed had your family not come along with you?

KB: The question doesn’t really make sense to me as I’d have to imagine a year apart from them, which is like imagining disaster, or at least terrible, debilitating heartache — and entirely self-inflicted heartache at that. Which itself seems like it would have been an insult to all the families everywhere who are forced, by dire circumstances, to live apart from each other.

SC: You have a young son. Has parenthood changed the topics you wish to explore poetically? How?

KB: No. I can detect no change in what or how I write that can be directly attributable to the birth of my son. I can say, personally, it’s altered the way I comprehend, or relate to, futurity. Just the notion of “future” beyond the next few days. His existence forced me to try and imagine something beyond the very next bend in the road. Because it’s roughly equivalent to being able to imagine his future, I suppose. I don’t mean “foresee” his future; I mean investing some imaginative effort in allowing the future to carry substance for me.

And then, in another sense, I think his existence has opened a reality that wasn’t there before, also having to do with the “future.” There’s a distinct possibility that my son, sometime down the road, will take an interest and read my work. There’s an immediate and obvious pleasure that comes with that notion; but also a fraught, complex, pressure that appears that one doesn’t immediately know what to do with. Culturally, we still point reflexively to our childhood and family as a space in which we were somehow formed, to a large degree, as individuals. This may not in fact be true, but we do still engage in this sort of self-narrative. So, the notion of a reader (my son) one day looking at my work with an “extra” eye, with an uncontrollable curiosity regarding who “he” has become vis-à-vis who I was, etc., adds a dimension to my writing (by which I mean how I think about my writing, as opposed to what I write) that I’ve not sorted out fully. Don’t know that I ever will. I can only say I believe it would be a failing to consciously write “to” or “for” that future person as I can’t see how a parent would avoid sanitizing or softening or masking for the perceived benefit of their child.

SC: Further to idea of not writing “for” your son, so to speak, how much are you willing to explore your domestic life in your writing — are you willing to pursue a poem inspired by your family or do you just not go there?

KB: This is a thorny area, to state the obvious. There seems to me to be eight different ways of answering the question, all of them equally valid. I’ll stick to one or two that occur to me. I don’t conceive of myself as the “type” of poet who’s drawn (at least not obsessively) to the literal, factual data and event of intimate or “close” biography. By which I mean I’m well aware of a species of lyric whose purpose or endgame seems to be the valourization of the poet’s affective powers, or figuring their own subjectivity as an admirable or somehow noble addition to a history of disproportionate reliance on emotional response as a favoured interpretation of reality. Which is to say I’m not about to go trawling through my son’s diary (when he has one) to find out how much he hates me in order to foreground my capacities as a forgiving and loving father. At least, I don’t think I will. Or, as another example, I carry a pretty vivid sequence of images in my head from the delivery room concerning the state of disrepair and convulsive transformation certain (or all) parts of my wife’s physiognomy found itself in. I’m not about to write any poems about it. I know what I consider to be my own “private life” and I simply transfer that same set of nerves and hesitancies to people closest to me. I want them to have their lives to themselves.

On the other hand. After completing a sequence of sonnets in Berlin that I thought had everything to do with surveillance and structures of political power in the world-historical sense, I realized that by using a figure like Walter Benjamin and his son at a young age, I may have been unconsciously writing about issues of control and surveillance and consciousnesses being formed under the watchful gaze of the Other that could only point to my being a new father. In fact, after coming home I found a photo of Benjamin as a boy on the very same Baltic beach, and at the same age, as my son was while writing. Just one among a great many convergences that are difficult to explain outside of the context of “family.”

And to be just simple and direct and stop evading some things; there’s a poem in Methodist Hatchet called “Sovereign” that takes place in or around the hospital the day he was born.

SC: How about the actual practice of writing, how has that changed or been informed by fatherhood? Where and how do you write best?

KB: Certainly I had to transform myself from a nighttime writer to a daytime writer. Staying up well into the night and rising late, bleary-eyed and half-present, simply wasn’t an option. I had to learn to catch and steal hours wherever and whenever I could. Parenting took priority, windows of worktime had to be carefully negotiated. My wife is a professional and works long days; we would have been in real trouble without the generous and committed assistance of her parents, who live within driving distance. They provided a lot of childcare that allowed me to steal some hours for myself. The whole experience helped me think clearly about single parents, especially single working mothers; how disgustingly difficult it is for them to find affordable childcare. In a lot of ways, universal daycare signifies a cornerstone of a modern, progressive state. Anything less is failure.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Ken Babstock’s most recent collection, Methodist Hatchet (Anansi, 2011), won the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry and was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. His previous collections of poetry include Mean (1999), Days into Flatspin (2001) and Airstream Land Yacht (2006). His poems have won Gold at the National Magazine Awards, been anthologized in Canada, the U.S. and Ireland, most recently in The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature in English, and translated into Dutch, German, Serbo-Croatian, Czech and French. All four titles were named Globe and Mail Top 100 Books of the Year. Ken Babstock was born in Newfoundland and now lives in Toronto.

Sharon Caseburg is a Canadian writer, editor and book designer. Her poetry and critical writing have appeared in numerous North American publications. Her long poem chapbook sleepwalking was published by JackPine Press. She is co-founder of the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry.