Featured Interview

Paola: So let's dive in - can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Michael: Well, I'm an associate professor at Athabasca University teaching in the Masters of Interdisciplinary Studies program (MAIS), and I teach in the undergraduate Communication Studies program. My academic background is in media and communication studies. I was an activist journalist for many years in Vancouver. I started out in community radio and then I worked in community television, and finally did some print journalism as well. 

I've been interested in writing since I was quite young. I had an English teacher that introduced me to the work of William Carlos Williams in grade nine or ten. That really left an impression. I had another English teacher that -- one of our high school assignments was to keep a journal. The teacher commented that it was the journal of a writer, which really had an impression on me. 

And so I, at a certain point early on, I kind of dropped out of everything and drove out to Vancouver to be a writer.

Paola: So you followed your dreams! 

Michael: My dreams and all the complications that come with following your dreams.

Paola: That's amazing. 

Michael: Following your dreams is one thing, but then, making sense of life in a neoliberal capitalist society is another thing. There's always constant tension and balance juggling.  

Paola: You had your first collection of poetry, “Waking in the Tree House,” published in 2012. How was the experience publishing back then compared to now?

Michael: I had more confidence as a writer with my second collection than my first collection. 

I was working with the same editor at Cormorant Books, Robyn Sarah. Robyn is a wonderful Canadian poet and has been a mentor for me and a friend and a colleague and an editor for both of these collections. But I think in the first one I was - because I was so young as a writer and so inexperienced - there was a way in which, in the second collection, I was more confident about the direction I needed the poems to go.

Also, my expectations around the publication of a second collection are very different from the first. 

With the first you think, “Oh my God, it's my debut party.”

It's like the world's going to see me. 

Of course, the publication of poetry collections in Canada can be like throwing a stone into a pond, right? You get a ripple and then they vanish.

So my expectations this time are very modest in terms of what this collection means. I'm very, very happy to have the collection out. It feels terrific. It's just a more modest way of understanding what the publication of poetry means.

Paola: Did your style of writing changed from your first collection to your collection now? 

Michael: I certainly didn't try and keep a consistent theme and style, but I think there are consistencies between the two collections. I would say that my writing is changing. 

There have been some shifts, and there are certain poems in this collection that suggest the direction that I think my work is going to go more so than others. The poems in this collection range over almost a decade. 

I don't think there's been abrupt shifts other than a small handful of poems in this collection that was influenced by Tongo Eisen-Martin’s work. 

I was exploring form as a way of trying to understand my critical relationship with my own positionality in society as a white heterosexual, cisgender male in those poems, and I think those poems are really quite a radical departure. 

I don't know how much more exploration I will do like that, but what I found was an exploration of form allowed a certain kind of epistemically disruptive exploration of conditions of power and meaning. So in that handful of poems, I would say there is quite a difference. 

Paola: Your first collection was shortlisted for the Quebec Writers Federation First Book Award. How did that feel, especially right after making your debut as a writer? 

Michael: It's super awesome, of course. Any kind of attention that a collection of poetry gets, I think is wonderful.

Even a review, and even if it's a tough review, means that somebody has read and engaged with the work. So to have somebody say that you've been shortlisted for a prestigious award, prestigious in a Quebec context - yeah, it was a very nice honor.

It's like somebody out there saw the work and said, "Hey, this is worth paying attention to."

It's a little bit different now. I find that as I go, I'm less needy in terms of having those kinds of accolades come up.

They're always wonderful when they come, but I think getting that from my first book was like, "Wow, that's great."

There was a different confidence level that I had then, and that I have now. I know more clearly now why I write poetry and I know what I want with a poem. At the same time, I have confidence in what I'm doing with language now, more so than I did then. The awards are nice, but not why I write poetry. 

Paola: You're releasing a new collection this spring, called "Who We Thought We Were As We Fell." Can you tell us a little bit about what the collection is about? 

Michael: The way that I approach poetry is, I don't set out to write a collection; rather, the poems emerge from spaces and places in my life.

What happened was, in another capacity, I sat on the editorial board for a university press and the manuscript for Cvetka Lipuš’ first translated collection into English came to the committee (which was subsequently published, Athabasca University Press 2018).

Lipuš is a great Slovenian poet. I was so inspired by her work that I sat down again with the poems that I'd been working on, and I produced a number of new poems in a short period of time, largely inspired by her work. So if there was any unifying inspiration, it really was being affected by the work of Cvetka Lipuš.

Inside my book, there are themes. I divided the book into four sections. That was just a way of trying to make sense of disparate poems. And as it turned out, those four themes did seem to resonate.

The first section, titled An Almost Perfect Plan, is really just moments in life where one encounters something more significant or more intense than the usual run-of-the-mill things.

The second section is -- I have a longtime interest in political activism and in ways of responding to and dissenting against the conditions of hegemony that we find ourselves surrounded in, here and globally, and everywhere. And so the second section, titled Pioneer in Late Capitalism,  emerged out of those kinds of spaces at a time in my life when I had gone to live in the country and when a lot of my activities were taking me into very rural spaces.

The third section -- it's a bit tongue in cheek -- it's called A Terrible Incident. These poems are deeply personal poems. They're almost embarrassingly self-involved in a way, right? And so that's why I called it A Terrible Incident.

The last section, What Remains, deals generally with themes of mortality. My dad died during the writing of this collection and my daughter was born. If there's anything that holds the collection together, it would be those four themes.

Paola: One poem that specifically caught my attention was Saturday night. What sort of message did you have in mind when writing the piece? 

Michael: My poetry emerges from usually a place -- I only learned this fairly recently, understanding my own method and inspiration for a poem. But it's often a place, something happens in a particular setting. So the place is very important. 

Something happens in a place that makes me aware of something more important than the usual. More interesting. So when I sit down with a poem like Saturday night, place and feel are important.

We live in a world where we're bombarded with stimuli, the digital cultures that we're enmeshed in. I think from those spaces of solitude, there are some very interesting and original, and important observations that we can make. Not just about the world, but maybe in particular about ourselves.

That's exactly what that poem is coming to in the end: the way that poems emerge from those spaces of silence. Poetry is a really odd art form in some ways, right? 

In that context of “a terrible incident”--  in that context of being frighteningly vulnerable and kind of revealing, this really self-involved very small, deeply inward-looking world -- it's complicated. Maybe that's the right word. It's complicated to know what has value to anybody else. 

So where that poem comes out of is exactly that tension between how much is too much and how much remains relevant for anyone else.

Paola: As a successively published author, can you offer a few tips for people who are hoping to get into poetry or to become a poet/writer in general?

Michael: What I think is meaningful for young writers is that you have to like writing poems. 

In the early days, I was desperate to get published and for attention. 

This is the story a friend of mine told me. My friend called up Al Purdy one night. He is a talented Vancouver poet. Al answered the phone. My friend read him some poems on the phone. Al listened, and he said they were pretty good and that my friend would probably get some attention for his work. Al said that the thrill of the attention wears off. That’s what he told my friend.

You've got to like writing poems. And I think that's really, really, important insight. 

In the end, I write poetry because I really like spending time inside the poems. It's such a tremendous luxury to be able to do that. So that would be one bit of advice: you really have to like writing poems. 

Another thing would be -- I really wrestled with not wanting to be influenced by other writers, wanting to have my own individual voice, wanting to be independent. 

I think that it can be extremely valuable being able to have the courage to not do what everybody else says you should do. What I wished I would've known younger, in particular, is when you're encountering difficulties and you're feeling frustrated, go find help, go seek out mentors. 

You know, I didn't get a mentor until much later in life. And it made all the difference in the world. When you're feeling frustrated with your own work, or maybe you want to quit; Go find somebody who you respect/whose work you like and reach out to them. They might say no. It's a difficult thing to do. 

It's about being able to maintain your own independent voice, but then not being afraid to change and to try other things. Listen to the guidance and critiques of people who have more experience and who care about you. 

Paola: Don't be afraid to ask for help. 

Michael: Everybody works with groups of people around them.

I'm in a writer's group.

That group is like lifeblood to me.

I have learned so much working with these writers and sharing my work with them and getting feedback. Every poet I know shares poems with people, shares poems with other poets. So nobody's really working in isolation. Artwork emerges out of collectivities.  

Being able to listen to caring feedback, adjust, adapt, and integrate the concerns into your work -- it's invaluable. It's so important in terms of growing as an artist.