Sharon Caseburg: Your first collection of poetry Lean Days (Wolsak and Wynn, 2004) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. What kinds of pressures did you feel in working on Primer on the Hereafter?
Steve McOrmond: Any pressures I felt were more internal than external. When I sit down before a blank page, I feel the presence of all the poets who have gone before. When you’re engaged in a small way in an enterprise that counts Keats and Rumi among its practitioners, worldly concerns like awards or reviews seem short-sighted.
Awards are all well and good, especially if they encourage a few more people to take your book for a test-drive, but a poet, if he or she is to have lungs for the long race, needs to build up a resistance to both criticism and praise. Both can be damaging, especially for a young writer. One danger of early praise is that you start to believe that you’ve got it figured out, that you know how to write a poem, and so tend to write the same formulaic stuff over and over again.
One aim for my second collection was simply not to repeat myself. I’d like each book to have a recognizably different texture to the language, a different rhetorical approach. To draw a parallel, the musicians I most admire—Bob Dylan, Beck and Neko Case, for example—are those who manage to reinvent themselves with each new album.
SC: Now working on your third collection, how are you trying to make it different from the previous two? Is this something that you consider each time you sit down to write now—”how do I make this different?” Or do you let the poem come into being first and then work to reshape it in a new image?
SM: I try to keep the process as open-ended and unsystematic as possible. I don’t want to pre-empt any surprises that may emerge in the course of writing. This means that I usually end up with a great many poems that don’t fit thematically when it comes time to start putting a collection together and have to make hard decisions about work that is out of scope. Part of making sure a collection has its own character is knowing which poems to leave out. I’m also conscious of trying to incorporate new formal experiments in my work. The collection I’m currently working on includes a long sequence of poems informed by the ghazal tradition, as well as quite a few dramatic monologues. I’m excited about both of these directions because they have the potential to change the way I write.
SC: On your Web site, you list several fiction writers and their books under “recommended reading.” In what ways has fiction helped to inform the writing of your poetry?
SM: I don’t read a lot of fiction these days, actually, and I don’t finish many of the novels I start. In many novels, the language is such a utilitarian conveyance, merely a means of moving the reader from point A to point B along the plotline. The novelists I love write more poetic prose. There’s an exquisite attention to the cadence of sentences. I’ve read everything Ondaatje and Cormac McCarthy have written. McCarthy simply has no equal as a prose stylist. His Child of God is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read, not to mention one of the strangest and most chilling. This one short novel is really a master class in the art of fiction. The Road, for all its laurels, isn’t even close to top-drawer McCarthy. I also love Hemingway, Martin Amis, Roddy Doyle and Jeannette Winterson. Generally, though, my poetry is more informed by my reading in science, nature writing, biography and, of course, poetry.
SC: Why is poetry an integral part of your life?
SM: My publisher Wolsak and Wynn recently ran an advertising campaign in which poetry was positioned as “the antidote to reality tv.” I think that’s bang on. We live in a world in which language is used for a whole host of nefarious purposes—from television commercials trying to sell me one more thing I don’t need to the dumbed-down political rhetoric that speech writers put into the mouths of talking heads.
The ad in the newspaper describes that postage-stamp-sized condo kitty-corner to the abattoir as a “chic and cozy refuge with the best of Toronto just outside your door.” Workers aren’t fired or laid off after decades of service, they’re “right-sized,” and civilians killed and maimed in war get swept under the carpet of “collateral damage.” By calling attention to the way in which words are used and misused, every poem is a small victory against the callous use of language.
SC: How do you spend your days? What kind of day job do you hold? How does your work figure into your writing? (Does your work figure into your writing?)
SM: My life outside poetry is suicidally normal. I earn my living as a writer in the high-tech industry, translating the technical jargon of software developers into copy for Web sites, press releases, print ads and marketing brochures. Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manual” describes the headspace: “As I sit looking out the window of the building / I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.” The imagination, if it doesn’t atrophy, chafes to escape its prison. Poetry is the file hidden in the loaf of bread, a means of jail-breaking workaday existence.
A number of Canadian poets have written brilliantly about work—Tom Wayman, Peter Trower and Milton Acorn, to name a few—but they’ve tended to focus on blue-collar occupations. I might like to see a few more poets take on the ironies and absurdities of office work—the lunch-and-learns and PowerPoint presentations. My company recently organized a team-bonding event where a troupe of African tribal drummers was brought in to teach me and my co-workers how to drum together in order to develop “a culture of cooperation and community.” Imagine what a contemporary Auden could do with this.
SC: You are originally from the east coast. How did moving to Toronto affect the way you write?
SM: After almost a decade of living in Toronto, I still sometimes feel like an outsider or a tourist. In a sense, my poetry has become polarized. While I have begun to write poems inspired by my urban surroundings, I also continue to write poetry that is grounded geographically in the Maritimes and informed by its landscape, history and culture.
Living in Toronto, I’ve become interested in the possibilities of the urban pastoral and have written in this mode about the hidden world of the city’s ravines, where the mega-city’s reliable north/south, east/west grid forgets itself and gestures back to wilderness, and the sharp delineations of the Niagara escarpment where turkey vultures, which Darwin called perfectly evolved “to wallow in putridity,” kettle on the updrafts. This preoccupation probably springs from my readings of the New York School poet James Schuyler, who has written some remarkable urban pastoral poems. It may also be an attempt to merge those two streams in my work that I mentioned earlier: the rural, with its interest in nature, and the urban.