Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jon Paul Fiorentino

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Jon Paul Fiorentino

Today we speak with Jon Paul Fiorentino, the author of Needs Improvement (Coach House Books) . The Montreal writer has been praised for his poetry and prose alike, and this sixth collection is no exception — its poems have already been called "often funny and always irreverent" and "satirical, witty, and ironically educational in the ways of poetry and language".

Jon tells us about how school grading rubrics can become poetry, life outside of books (or the lack thereof) and the importance of embarrassing the reader.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Needs Improvement.

Jon Paul Fiorentino:

Needs Improvement is my eighth book and sixth poetry collection. It is made up of three sections: Things-as-Facts, a collection of free verse lyrics, Needs Improvement, a series of pedagogical interventions, and Moda, a series of eight villanelles. It’s a book that is very strange. I am proud of it.


How did you come across the materials that inspired this collection? In particular, what drew you to engage with sixth grade curriculum documents in a poetic manner?


The middle section, Needs Improvement, takes issue with the language of pedagogy. It asks hard questions about how we receive information and how evaluative information can be problematic and even harmful. The poem you are referring to is called “RUBRIC FOR THE EVALUATION OF POETRY, DEDICATED TO MS. CASTRO’S SIXTH GRADE POETRY STUDENTS AT MATER ACADEMY MIDDLE/HIGH SCHOOL IN HIALEAH GARDENS, FLORIDA.” The sixth grade materials were taken from an actual rubric I found online. It contains so many common misconceptions about what poetry “should be.” I wanted to rearrange it to try to make poetry out of the found materials.


You use a variety of structures in the collection, including villanelles. How do you approach form while writing? Do you know the form a certain poem requires before you start writing, or does form emerge during the writing process?


It really depends. The villanelles you are referring to were all written as villanelles first. They were built around the refrains — many of them are slogans or mottos. I am not the most form-oriented poet, but I believe it’s important to keep those old tools sharpened, as it were.


Tell us a bit about the experience of making the trailer for "In Perfect Winnipeg".


Rob Benvie (The Dears/Thrush Hermit) and I had been talking about writing a song for a while. “In Perfect Winnipeg” is our first successful attempt. I recruited Clara Legault from Motel Raphael to sing the lyrics. Then when it came to the video, I stumbled upon this gorgeous footage of Winnipeg from the 1960s and 70s. I fell in love with it and contacted the guy who owned it to get the masters. Then I let Maryanna Hardy have her way with it. Lots of collaboration. Lots of fun.


How does working as a creative writing teacher, publisher and editor impact your writing process? Do you ever find yourself needing to disconnect from such a book-centric existence or does it invigorate your own writing?


I don’t have a life outside of books. What would be the point?


What are some recent reads that you really loved? If you could recommend one other Canadian poet to readers, who would it be?


I quite liked Dina Del Bucchia’s Coping with Emotions and Otters and Colin Smith’s Carbonated Bippies. If I could recommend just one Canadian poet it would be (quite predictably) bpNichol.


What are you working on now?


I have a book of short comedic illustrated fiction called I’m not afraid of you or anything. The illustrations were done by Maryanna Hardy. Right now I’m frantically rewriting the stories to make them less embarrassing to me and more embarrassing to the reader.

Jon Paul Fiorentino is the author of the novel Stripmalling, which was shortlisted for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and five previous poetry collections, including The Theory of the Loser Class, which was shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize. His previous poetry collection, Indexical Elegies, won the 2010 CBC Book Club 'Bookie' Award for Best Book of Poetry. He lives in Montreal, where he teaches writing at Concordia University and edits Matrix magazine.

For more information about Needs Improvement please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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