INTERVIEW: PAUL VERMEERSCH
Paul Vermeersch is a Toronto-based poet and editor. His poems have appeared in journals and magazines in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. His first collection of poems Burn (ECW Press, 2000) was a finalist for the 2001 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for the best English language poetic debut in Canada. In 1998 he founded the I.V. Lounge Reading Series, where he continues to curate and host readings on a regular basis. His anthology The I.V. Lounge Reader (Insomniac Press) was published in 2001. He is now the poetry editor for Insomniac Press.
The Fat Kid will be launched in March of 2002.
Q: Vermeersch, why do you write?
A: There are many reasons. I'm sure I don't know all of them. I don't think
there's an adequate answer to this question.
Q: Why do you think anyone will care what you write, especially, poetry?
A: I don't think anyone will care about what I write. I just hope that someone
Q: At what point did you start to find your 'writing voice' and how were you
able to develop it?
A: In university, I guess. I read a lot. Wrote a lot. Trial and error. It's an
on-going process. No one's ever finished "looking" for it, at least I don't feel
that anyone ever should be, if they take their writing seriously.
Q: You have talked of dissecting and reconstructing your poems several times
before you are satisfied with them. Is this an individual technique or have
you learned your style and technique from others? I know that you have told
me that Dennis Lee has helped you extensively. How has he? Do you think, as
I feel, that too much editing, especially in fiction writing, can kill the
voice and energy of the words?
A: I think any kind of artist should be obsessive about his work. There's no
point in crapping out a messy poem, tossing it to the wind and saying, "That's
the way it came out so that's my poem, and I don't care of it's good or bad as
long as it's done." Most good poems are the result of a lot of work. Even if you
do write something that's all right, there's always a way to make it better. So
I work and rework and write and rewrite and revise and cut and shift and change
things around until I get a poem as close as possible to what I would ideally
like it to be. I don't think this way of working is particular to me. Al Purdy
once advised me in a letter about his work ethic when it comes to this kind of
thing, and it helped me become more diligent in my own writing. As far as Dennis
Lee is concerned, he's just been very supportive and encouraging of me. He
offered some very good comments on some of the poems in Burn. His encouragement
has been a real blessing. And as far as editing is concerned, I couldn't
disagree with you more. There's no such thing as "too much" editing, there's
just good editing and bad editing. A good editor knows when to stop. Bad editing
can look like "too much" editing, or it can look like "not enough" editing, but
good editing helps make poems (or whatever) better. End of story. Can editing
"kill the voice and energy of the words?" Not if it's good editing. A skilled
writer can create a voice and create the necessary energy, and a skilled editor
can help strengthen these things. The desired effect of a poem can be (should
be) achieved through the skill of the poet, through his ability to use, shape,
and manipulate language. Editing and revision are a necessary part of the
process that allows that language to reach it's fullest potential. Happy
accidents occur, but rarely. The first draft is just wood--revision, that's the
carving. It's when I'm working on a poem and paying attention to the most minute
details for the good the whole that I feel I'm doing my real work as a writer. A
perfect first draft is as rare and freakish as a potato chip shaped like Abraham
Q: You once told me that a writer or artist is doing their art because they
failed at their first love. Can you explain what you meant by this?
A: Well, I heard someone say this once, I forget who, and thought about. I
always wanted to be a painter but eventually realised I didn't have a knack for
expressing myself in the medium. Having technical skill is different than having
talent. I think I can be a good painter technically, I just never know what to
paint. Poetry just feels more natural to me. So painting was my first love. I
suppose I failed at it, and the poetry started improving when I stopped worring
about it. I always hear writers say, "I wish I could draw," or singers might
say, "I always wanted to be a violinist." I guess that's what I meant by that.
Q: Is there any happiness in writing? There is obsession and perfectionism
but is there happiness?
A: Oh, for Christ's sake, John. What the hell does that mean? Some people are
writers, some aren't. Some people are happy, some aren't. Some people are happy
sometimes, and sometimes they're not so happy. I can feel happy when I finish a
poem and feel satisfied with it. I can feel happy when I give a good reading and
the audience seems to like it. I can feel happy when I watch a good movie, or go
for a walk, or kiss somebody for the first time, or take a shower, or slip on
some ice and bruise my ass. But I can feel like shit doing any of those things,
too. Next question.
Q: Paul, you recently took over the helm as poetry editor at Insomniac
Press? How do you intend influence the brand and style of poetry that the
press is putting out? What are you looking for?
A: Wait and see.
Q: The I.V. Lounge Reader was recently launched at the I.V. Lounge and was a
large success. Do you think that Toronto is brimming with talent at this
time or do you think that you plucked the best poems and short stories
written by average talents in the last five years and put them in your book?
Do you think that there is a renaissance in Toronto poetry, currently? If
so, why was it not here five years ago?
A: I wasn't in Toronto five years ago, so I'm not even sure that what you're
saying is true. I think exciting things are happening right now in Canadian
writing, but I don't know if it's a renaissance, or a continuation of what's
always been there, or a new wave, or what. There will always be established
writers, writer's in mid-career, and emerging writers. I imagine it's always
exciting to watch this evolution take place, to see writers moving up the steps,
so to speak, and it's always taking place. The I.V. Lounge Reader is a sampling
of various writers of fiction and poetry in different stages of this evolution.
I'm not willing to speculate on how much talent is floating around Toronto, or
how much of it is allotted to this person or that. Time will tell.
Q: Paul, book reviewing in Canada has recently got a bad rap for being too
bland and reviewers have been criticized for not really saying what they
mean. Kevin Chong mentioned this in an article in the National Post.
Recently you reviewed Gord Downey`s book of poetry, Coke Machine Glow, for
the Quill and Quire. The review was a frank and unfavourable. Do you worry
about alienating an audience or pissing off an author who might unfavourable
review you or do you think that the writer is best served to receive an
honest review? Julian Barnes and Martin Amis are famous for slagging each
other in public. Is there a general morass in Canadian reviewing and
A: Most book reviews these days don't say much about the books, about the
writing. Most of them are just "book announcements"--free adverstising to keep
publishers happy so they'll keep buying up add space in the paper or magazine
that covered the book. It's a pretty spineless way to go about the whole
business, and it doesn't do much to help the writer or the reader (the reader is
what the publishing industry calls "the consumer"). Are we all so afraid of
getting our feelings hurt? Are we all cliche Canadians who won't say anything if
we can't say anything nice? A valid literature requires (deserves) a valid
criticism, both positive and negative. A book review isn't the definitive
assessment of a book's merits, it's part of a dialogue, a starting point, and
only one person's opinion. I don't think my negative review of Downie's book is
going to hurt it's sales. There are still going to be people who buy it because
they like his music, or because they're curious, or because they like his
poetry. I have my thoughts about the book, said what I felt I needed to say
about it, and if people read my review and talk about his book more seriously,
then I did him a favour. I don't really worry about alienating anyone, since I
feel that I'm out there actively supporting poetry and all kinds of writers,
either through my reading series, or as an editor, or what have you. If someone
I have reviewed negatively bares a grudge, and down the road reviews a book of
mine with a personal bias, that would be too bad, I guess, but I can't concern
myself with such things. It's better to have some integrity, stick to your guns,
base your opinions on some kind of learned observation, and try to be frank
without being cruel. Book reviewing needs more of that.
Q: Paul. I`m terribly jealous of you because you are gifted are much younger
than me. I would like to challenge you to a duel except I cannot clean my
musket -- I cannot stand the smoke and dirt. God love us.... What do you
think you`ll be doing when you`re eight years from now and do you ever
worry that your best years are your young years?
A: Thank you, John. Please don't be jealous, and please don't mend that musket
anytime soon. Eight years from now I expect I'll be writing, probably editing
something, be disappointed in love--same stuff I'm doing now. Hopefully, I'll
have quit smoking by then. Do I worry that my best years are my young years?
Never think about it.
Q: Charles Baudelaire said that poets are the Princes of the Clouds? Then
what, pray tell, are fiction writers?
A: Oh Christ, I dunno. Make something up.