Your poetry delights in American pop culture baseball, Taylor Swift, hotdog stands, Hanson's "MmmBop", etc. and routinely pokes at Canadianisms and Can Lit in particular. Is there any sanctimonious pushback or do you think Canadian readers can laugh at themselves and their neighbours to the south?
The very first review of my very first book, 1996’s Lardcake, which was full of poems about TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes and Bewitched, started with the reviewer proudly articulating how he didn’t watch television and the review didn’t get much nicer from there. It would not be the last of snobby reviews or tut-tut reactions my work has earned from the ranks of lovers of “real poetry”. To be honest, I feel it has been a struggle to see my work accepted at shoulder level with other Canadian poets largely because of subject matter. Looking back, I was pretty slow to recognize how intense literary society’s contempt for working class culture can be. Poets can actually get angry like never-speak-to-you-again angry because you like something they consider to be tawdry. It didn’t matter if liking Taylor Swift is about as no-kidding as liking oxygen, it didn’t matter if I looked upon it metaphorically and Taylor Swift is as good as Helen of Troy in that regard, the social sphere of poetry was more tightly constructed than I imagined when I first started really loving to read poetry. One critic proudly said something like ‘What McGimpsey doesn’t understand is that while hamburgers fill the stomach, poetry fills the soul!’ which did not make me laugh when I read it but it sure as hell makes me laugh now. Poets, however, as you know, can also be a very witty group and, over the years, many of them saw me hanging in there and, as I got better, vouched for me and held me in kind regard. Not just as a funny mascot, but as somebody just like them: engaged in the art and willing to stand up for my own vision and for the visions of other poets. While Anti-Americanism is perhaps the most crucial rhetorical gesture to the nationalism of English Canada, I think the fact that my poetry exists and is recognized by Canadians is more than enough sign of the country’s generosity and ability to laugh.
You're an English language poet in Montreal. Has francophone language or culture influenced your own writing in any way?
Most definitely. I grew up in a very francophone Quebecois community in the east end of Montreal and I remain very attached to that experience and spirit of the people who live and work there. I still consider that part of Montreal home. The culture of French Canada is also not just the culture of the other, or an other, or an antidote culture it is also simply part of the popular culture I experienced. From the bon chum broadcasters of our hockey games to the television clown Patof (the thing I fear most in the world), it is the unexotic sound and spirit of my upbringing. But, I should say, I was from an English speaking family and grew up in a time of intense ethnic nationalism in Quebec and I was made quite aware of my minority status. I was not un vrai Québécois and appreciating my unwantedness in regard to this movement - which regarded all those who were not ethnically Québécois as “English” - was probably the most highly influential thing of all. Somehow, from the outside, I was relatively unmoved by the nationalism of English Canada - its maple leaf waving and beer commercial jingoism still seems pretty corny to me. English Canada and the United States were the same English speaking “not Quebec” place, except the United States felt way cooler. With a small antenna on a television, I got to see a world outside my French catholic refinery town: I got to fall in love with Ginger Grant and dream I could shoot free throws as proficiently as Larry Bird.
Your last collection, Li'l Bastard, is a physically squat squarish thing filled with "chubby sonnets", your signature 16-line take on the form itself. Was this design intentional? How involved are you with the physical aesthetic of your books?
Yes, it was. My press, Coach House Books, is superlative in its sense of design and design purpose. They are the geniuses but it comes through proper consult and consent. Otherwise, if was all left to just the author, you’d get Homer Simpson’s automobile design. The handheld echo of the pocketbook in Li’l Bastard enhances, I think, the book’s implied critique without pretending to be anything but poetry. Because every idea of Coach House’s production is met to execute artistic vision, working with them has easily been the most rewarding professional experience I’ve had in my life as a writer. They simply make beautiful books.
Your Twitter account is on fire! As an active participant in the world of Twitter, what do you enjoy most about this medium? And what's up with the "I love noodles" refrain you tweet so gleefully and often?
I love the joketeller’s aspect of Twitter. It’s a smartass’ disco. I love the live-tweet flourishing around events, though I lose literary followers for my dedicated and foulmouthed tweeting of New York Giants games. My absolute favorite thing on Twitter is when comedian Norm Macdonald tweets a round of golf or tells a long story. That’s brilliant. My personal favorite correspondence on Twitter is the one I have with Doritos Mexico.
“I love noodles” is a poetry trope that I started in my notebooks more than ten years ago. I guess it all starts with the logic of the lyrics to “I Get a Kick Out of You” and, by now, it has the applied sense of an annoying radio ad that you hear hundreds of times. Noodles is a funny word and that’s the gem for me, but it still works in the way the comedy in my poetry tries to work the return to the body that reminds you we are all headed the same place.
Asbestos Heights, your newest book, comes out this May. How long did it take you to finish this collection? Tell us about your writing process.
About five years. While the book celebrates my heritage as a kid who grew up in a refinery town (Ville D’Anjou) its lingering inspiration actually came from an interview I gave where I was asked “What do serious writers think of your poetry?” I was taken aback by that, I admit. Was I not a serious writer? I wasn’t going to publicly fight the implication you can’t write poems about Gilligan’s Island and then cry about not being taken seriously but, you know, it sucked to always be talked down to as if I was there in my clown shoes, ready to “warm up the crowd” between their serious readings of some book titled something like "The Soul is in the Dawn of The Rich Tree of Death". I completed a PhD in literature, had spent 30 years reading, writing and teaching poetry which always felt excessively “serious” to me but, still, people were asking me things like “Have you ever thought about having a book where there were, like, zero references to Ashlee Simpson’s “L.O.V.E.”?” In the society where literature is produced, being told you’re “funny” is not always a compliment. Poetry and comedy are not strange bedfellows - after all, they’re mortal enemies. Comedy is the revenge of the people, poetry is the voice of the elite. So, this book starts and ends with a later-in-life attempt to finally write “serious” poetry to write about the things “serious poets” write about setting out everyday to take notes on flowers, history and literature! The end result, however, is something else and something dedicated to the memory of my very proud, and quite hilarious, father.
Who are you reading these days?
I just read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I had seen the movie, of course, but had never read it before and I was stunned by how much such a short work could accomplish. Profoundly insightful into the connection between art and personal propaganada. I read Alix Hawley’s brand new novel All True Not A Lie In It and thought it brilliant. The poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt because of my feelings. I usually read history books, though and am trying to learn about how certain American eating and drinking customs establish themselves.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a nonfiction book which stems from a column I wrote for EnRoute magazine about sandwiches. The books about culinary customs is part of this project but its mostly just a fun, nonfiction memoir which chronicles the amazing adventures I’ve had over the years with my brother Mike.
Got a favourite cocktail you'd like to add to The Mackinac's liquor list for Issue #6? How about a song for our playlist?
Jack & soda. “Troubador” by George Strait.