Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Jacob Scheier

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Jacob Scheier

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Clare Merchant:

Hello! My name is Clare. I am the student who is lucky enough to research your works a bit. :) I have been really interested in what I have read thus far and look forward to hearing back from you! Thank you so much for taking the time to do this and being open to helping me out. For a student still in high school it is an amazing privilege to be able to converse with a person who has accomplished as much as you.

These are a few questions I had, hopefully they are understandable.

  1. Your book, More to Keep Us Warm, won the 2008 Governor General’s Award, named among 2008’s "best in verse" by The Winnipeg Free Press and was highlighted for its excellence by Canadian Literature, Matrix and Prairie Fire. Some of the praise being, the beautiful way you attempt to find meaning through loss within the test. More to Keep Us Warm works in tandem with Kierkegaard’s famous phrase: “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.”
  2. I read that you are brilliant in the use of the stylistic tools of humor in a subtle “tongue to cheek” way, with witty quips amongst your work that allows the reader to work on discovering the jokes. As well as your use of elements taken from post-modern fiction such as interaction with the reader. I was wondering if this came naturally to you, and is just "the way you write"? Or is it something you had to work towards in order to achieve the correct atmosphere for your poems?
  3. In the poem "North America," I love the part where you say that Jesus seems like an “alright guy, someone to talk to in Yorkville”. I can't tell you exactly what it is I find so funny about this part, but it made me smile to myself. You mention that you like Jesus, but don’t love him. What was your intended meaning behind this poem?
  4. What was your process with More to Keep Us Warm? Did you have a specific goal in mind and wrote your poems to fit that structure? Or did you take a collection of works that you had done and inspired you to bring them together for this book?
  5. When did your love of poetry begin? Are you one of those people that have been writing since you can remember and always knew that it was the path you wanted to take with your life? Or were you inspired by a certain event?
  6. Is there a theme or topic that you hope to cover with your poems in the future? Or do you just wait for inspiration to come to you, and see where that takes you?

Jacob Scheier:

Hi Clare,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions.

I couldn’t agree more with the Kierkegaard quote and am very pleased you see it working in tandem with my work. That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you.

As to your question about whether my style of writing comes naturally to me or if I had to work at it — the answer is both. I had to work at finding my own voice. Part of that work was just courage — to not try just to write in the styles that seemed popular or respected. The other part of it was searching deeply within myself for the voice beneath my public, societal, approval seeking voice — my real voice, my real self. It certainly has been hard work. Great question!

Thank you too for your kind words about my poem “North America.” I am glad that you liked it. To be honest I am not entirely sure what I meant — I think what you think it means is just as correct as my intended meaning. But if I try to think about it now — about seven years or so after writing it — I was trying to get at an issue I think a lot of people in our culture face. That is, I am a very secular person as this is the way I was brought up and the way many of us are brought up today, but I long for a spirituality I was not raised with and that is absent from our culture for the most part — and where we do find it, tends to be in organized religion, which I find problematic, I guess. Christianity, as I understand it, says you must love this person you never met — in a way I find it kind of a funny idea. It’s hard enough to love the people we know really well. But I like the idea a lot of faith — of that that kind of love, and I like the idea of the person of Jesus; what he stood for (what I think he stood for). It’s pretty complicated and conflicted and not just for me, but for a lot of people, I think. I was trying to speak to and for secular people with spiritual longing; people like myself. I was also just being myself and I like saying weird, funny things (funny to me anyway).

Ok, as for the question about process. I didn’t have an end goal in mind with my first book. I was just writing poems and once I had written 50 poems or so that I thought were good (I had probably over that time period — six years — written hundreds of poems, but thought many of them were not very good), I sent them off to a publisher and hoped they liked it. The title was chosen, in collaboration with my editor, just shortly before going to press. So the book is really just a bunch of poems. It’s not really meant to be seen as a cohesive whole. It’s more like "real life" than a novel in that way.

As for your question about when I came to writing — I came to writing a bit later than a lot of poets, I think. It was the discovery of a few poets in high school that made me want to write. My mother was a published poet, and that did not make me want to write poetry at all. Rather, I loved the music of Leonard Cohen, and then discovered that he wrote poems and loved those too. His poetry spoke to me so much that it inspired me to want to be able to make my words find their way into someone else’s head and heart — to write something that made people feel they were understood in their darkest and strangest moments as that’s what Leonard Cohen’s poems did for me. Once I started reading his poems, other people introduced me to some other poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jim Carroll and then I was hooked and just wanted to write all the time. I would also say losing my mother when I was a young man also pushed me to keep writing, because I had to find a way to express what seemed so incomprehensible to me at the time — writing poetry was a way for me to survive (I think it was for Cohen, Ginsberg and Caroll too).

— So I am really interested in writing about my family history. Specifically about my Grandfather, who immigrated from what is now Romania in the early 20th century and came to New York City. In America he joined a union and became a communist — which is something that a lot of working class Jewish immigrants did. His generation of labor activists created unions and fought for many of the rights that workers in North America enjoy today. It is a very inspiring and interesting history. I am also interested in writing about my mother’s young adult life. She was part of the '60s counter culture ("hippie" culture) in Berkley, California and the anti-war movement. At the same time, the personal lives of both these family members were very difficult — so I am interested in writing about the personal aspect of these family members in the context of such significant historical periods, politically speaking. I’ve written a few poems on these "themes," and I continue research the history and write about it.

Thank you for all your thoughtful questions. It’s been a pleasure answering them.

A Toronto poet and journalist, Jacob Scheier’s debut poetry collection, More to Keep us Warm (ECW Press), won the 2008 Governor General’s Award. The book was also named amongst 2008’s “best in verse” by The Winnipeg Free Press and has received praise from Canadian Literature, Matrix and Prairie Fire. Jacob’s poems have appeared in several periodicals in North America, including Geist, Descant, Rattle (forthcoming) as well as being aired on CBC radio and adapted for a modern dance performance at the Enwave Theatre in Toronto. He has read his poems at venues across North America, including the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and the Word for Word poetry series at Bryant Park in New York City, and he is the Former co-editor-in-chief of existere, York University’s journal of art and literature.
Jacob’s articles and editorials frequently appear in Toronto’s NOW Magazine, and in 2009 he co-won a New York Community Media Alliance award for best feature article in an independent publication.

Clare is the baby of the family and the successor of her older brother. Named after the county in the emerald isle and holds up to the origin of Clár by continuously bridging friends and family together. She also is able to connect her love for sports and literature by making time for both. She hopes to accomplish more writing in the near future while cogitating English in university.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page