Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Gregory Betts

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Gregory Betts (photo credit: Charles Earl)

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.

Emily Saunders:

Hello! These are a few questions I have for you. Thank you for taking the time to answer them.

I read in your biography that you were born in Vancouver, raised in Toronto and now live in St. Catharines. Which of these places is your favourite place to live? Did growing up in Canada have an influence on your writing? What does it mean to you to be a Canadian poet?

Gregory Betts:

Each of the geographies in my life has had a significant, if somewhat unquantifiable, impact on me and my writing. At the same time, I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s theories about Canadian writing and feeling very resistant to the idea that the place, the country, ultimately determines the writer. The Canadian writer most resistant to Atwood’s geographic determinism was probably Steve McCaffery. In my book If Language, I do a little parody of Atwood’s efforts to find Canada in every writer by turning McCaffery’s words into an anagram of Canadian place names.

To me, being a Canadian poet at this historical moment means that I am afforded an enormous amount of material and imaginative support in my creative writing. Canadians used to be far more resistant to the idea of art as an important dimension of life. There is still philistinism here, and the arts always seem to be under attack, but there is also a robust network of writers across the country who are exploring ideas to the very edge of the human imagination and working hard to make sure that there are venues for work of the same calibre. Being a part of that community is inspiring and encouraging.


Do you think that the visual representation of your poetry is just as important as the content itself? Why?


Yes and no. How something is laid on a page definitely impacts the meaning of the work, and I do believe that, ideally, form is an extension of the content and vice-versa. That said, the design of my writing on the page (choices like font, font size, paper quality, margin spacing, kerning, running headers and so on) is often done either by someone else or sometimes in collaboration with a designer. A great deal of information is passed through typography. Even the font is meaningful, as the recent documentary on Helvetica made abundantly clear.

While certain visual dimensions of my writing are essential to the meaning of the work (I’ve done visual poetry as well as pattern poetry), the design of my books is an interesting space where I start to collaborate with my publishers and let them interpret the works visually. I have a poem that was published in GEIST magazine, in the Shift & Switch anthology, in my book and then again in a new anthology called Against Expression. The poem looks different, and reads differently, in each of these forums, but yet the words are all the same. I am interested in how the context and the design change the meaning of a work, in part because it reflects on how readers of my work envision the writing.


I took a look at Choral Sea II and Dawn of a Dead Wood Dawn. In both these works, you collaborated with Gary Barwin. Do you prefer collaborative writing or individual writing? How was your experience with collaboration? Is it more difficult to write when working with another poet?


Collaboration is a wonderful and fascinating experience, but it can be frustrating — and I think that frustration is an important part of the experience. You cannot say something exactly as you want it to be said; you have to open up your voice to work with the other artist. Letting go of yourself in that way opens up enormous possibilities. Woody Allen has a line that he wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have him as a member. Gary and I parody that line in our collaboration by saying, “I wouldn’t be a member of language that would have i.” The joke is that we have to be members of our linguistic community, which includes i, but that in collaboration the i voice is overwhelmed by the we voice of the collaborators: the “I” who says “I wouldn’t be a member” is actually the composite voice of two authors.


Your book that I was most interested in was If Language because it was written entirely in anagrams. How long did it take you to write this book? What inspired the anagram work? Did you always have a knack for them or did you struggle with it at the beginning?


If Language took me years to write, in part because I completed it without any computer assistance. I understand that there are numerous online anagram generators now, but I worked by surrounding myself with dictionaries and thesauri and scrap paper in a semicircle. Individual entries in the book took upwards of a month to complete. I have no natural proficiency at anagrams, but it is interesting how by the end of the project, I had internalized the constraint to such an extent that I could compose a paragraph in my head and be within ten letters or so of a perfect anagram. By the end, I was able to think inside the constraint.

The project was inspired by the idea that meaning is fleeting and unstable, almost like a throw of the dice, but that it is something wonderful when it occurs. The anagram seems to capture that process by creating meaning and then destroying the meaning by scrambling and then rearranging the letters allowing a new meaning to appear.


Besides poetry, you also write stories, manifestos and essays. Which ones of these is your favourite to write and why? If writing weren’t incorporated in your life at all, what would you be doing right now?


In the past week I have written three new poems, edited a new manifesto, written an extended prose scene that never went anywhere and was consequently abandoned, worked on three different essays (one on ancient Icelandic literature, one on Marshall McLuhan’s prose style and one on contemporary collaborative experimental writing), written and delivered two lectures (one on Sheila Watson and Canadian modernism, the other on Conceptual Writing in the United States), written a long letter to a friend who is sick and a short letter to a friend I hope to visit soon. On top of which, I have written no less than 200 emails and f/emails (Facebook messages). All day long I read and write. There is a kind of writing for every dimension of my imagination and experience, and where there isn’t an appropriate genre I seek to invent one. If writing wasn’t incorporated into my life at all I would be entirely different. There are no favourites anymore — just a series of interconnected nodes.


Does teaching at Brock have an impact on the amount of writing you get to do? Why did you want to become a teacher of Canadian Literature?


Brock is a phenomenal place to be right now. There are great creative writers on staff and many open-minded professors who help make the space creatively challenging and interesting. The students have been phenomenal — some of them are truly hungry to learn about what it means to be a writer now. They organize literary readings, they have started a Brock Writers Club to workshop new poems and stories regularly, they publish an anthology every year and former students who live in the city have just started a new poetry magazine. It is hard not to be inspired by so much creative energy, especially for experimental writing. I suppose I wanted to become a teacher of Canadian literature to help kids here, in this country, connect to the imaginative freedom and challenge of the writing world. Does my job at Brock impact the amount of writing I do? It improves the quality of the writing I do. I couldn’t ask any more of any job.

Gregory Betts is a poet, editor and professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is the author of four books of poetry and the editor of three books of experimental Canadian writing. He received the 2010 Jean-Michel Lacroix Award for the best essay on a Canadian subject by the International Journal of Canadian Studies and his book The Others Raisd in Me was a shortlisted finalist for the 2010 ReLit Award. He recently completed a history of early Canadian avant-gardism that is now forthcoming by the University of Toronto Press.

Emily Saunders is a ray of sunshine. She has yet to be published, but she has books and books of poetry ready to inspire the world. Although they're not really her style, Emily can write quite the essay. She thoroughly enjoys music, singing and laughing. Her favorite band is Radiohead and they influence her, especially in her writing. Her future involves happiness.

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