Alex Manley is an editor at AskMen.com.
I sat down with Montreal poet and editor, Alex Manley, to talk about his forthcoming collection with Metatron Press. His manuscript was shortlisted for the 2016 Metatron Prize, and he was later offered a publication deal. He had to reschedule our meeting all of one time (see: brunch with mother), at which point we tentatively titled the interview “Local Diva Stands Up Puritan Editor.” Read an excerpt from his collection here.
Fawn Parker: You were shortlisted for the Metatron Prize this year, and Metatron decided to publish your manuscript in their Fall catalogue. Your collection is tentatively called Animals & Plants*—I hope I’m right about that, it’s Animals & Plants, and not the other way around.
Alex Manley: Yeah, Animals & Plants. I chose it specifically to avoid confusion with the famous band Plants and Animals. You’ve got to think in terms of SEO, man. Although that may not be the final title when the book comes out.
FP: So was this something you were working on with the idea of a collection in mind, or is it more that you collected up pre-existing work and it came together?
AM: It’s a mix. I’ve known Ashley and Guillaume for a long time and have always admired what they’ve been doing, but one of the things that had kept me from approaching Metatron in the past was this perception I had that the problem with my writing and with myself as a writer was that I don’t have a style.
All my poems felt so different, disparate, like they came to me from these radically different moods. Whereas all the collections I was reading and loving—Sorrow Arrow by Emily Kendal Frey and Scarecrone by Melissa Broder for example—gave me this sense that all the poems really lived together and felt so cohesive.
And I wondered, “Why don’t I have that?” But at some point, I decided I had to submit this year. And then in the course of putting the poems together, realized, “Oh, there is kind of a theme. There’s this subtle going-back-to-nature thing happening a lot. That’s kind of an interesting theme for me. Something that I could see myself having fun with and writing poems around.” So it was sort of a process of combining existing poems with new poems and doing some little edits to really tie everything together.
There’s this subtle going-back-to-nature thing happening a lot.
So, I’m going to go on a tangent here—I just had this thought recently. When I was at Concordia submitting stuff to student journals and trying to “make it” as a writer, I had this perception that if something didn’t take, like, the first time I submitted it, I would just give up on it.
Because I kept on having this experience where I would write something and it wouldn’t get accepted and I would tinker with it and submit it again and it wouldn’t get accepted, and then so many things that did get accepted were things I had just written in half an hour that got accepted the first time I submitted them.
So I developed this idea about my writing and writing in general, that anytime anything didn’t come together right away and get accepted right away, I should just like, get rid of it, dump it, forget about it. And putting this manuscript together showed me that was a totally idiotic thing to think. Sometimes stuff takes time. And I wish I had realized that when I was younger.
FP: When I asked Guillaume to forward me an excerpt from the collection, he described it as “highly romantic” in scare quotes. Does that ring true to you?
AM: [Laughs] Well, I wouldn’t be the first poet to be moved to the medium by romantic feelings.
So, yeah, I cop to that. I think there are lots of other people that are great at writing poems that have nothing to do with people’s feelings for each other, but that is not me, and at this point in my writing I’ve come to terms with that. It took me awhile; I used to feel really bad about that. “Why am I not writing about my relationship with my family or, I don’t know, some beautiful ekphrastic poems about cool art?” Then I realized the poetry I love is poetry that hits this chord. If you’ve ever experienced heartbreak and longing, then you just see that in the poems and that makes it a really powerful experience. So I decided I was going to stop feeling guilty about that and just remind myself that there are people out there like me, where the poems they like the most are the ones that make them re-experience those kinds of feelings. So that’s who I am as a writer, I guess.
FP: About a year ago I saw you introduce yourself at a reading in Montreal by saying something like, “You’ve never heard of me because I’m just a guy with a good job and a happy relationship.” Do you think “the struggle” is a necessary part of the creation of art?
AM: I remember that. I’m not sure that’s exactly how I phrased it. But success in the writing community, as with any field, is about hard work, luck, and stuff out of your control, probably much more so than it is about this notion that pain is somehow useful. I know for myself and a lot of writers that I’m friends with that writing is sort of therapeutic. It’s a great way to kind of [air quotes] deal with stuff. But I think that can lead to fetishizing pain, whether it’s pain from serious stuff or frivolous pain like “the girl I like doesn’t like me back.”
FP: Or she’s going to law school.
AM: So they sent you “The Lip Of.”
Yeah, I think so long as you’re able to not be too bogged down in that idea that you need things to go badly or you need there to be drama to the point that you seek it out, then I think it’s fine. But, you know, I got a book deal from one of my favourite small publishers during the most stable period of my life. Not because I was going through drama but because I sat down and had some material and worked on it.
I bought a shirt for you.
This season’s theme is black,
gold, yellow, orange, and hands
at the lip of a desk, typing
things, all those texts,
messages we should
and should not be parsing,
the push and pull of notifications,
like a dog in a park, circling, sniffing.
And at the end, you’ve carved
something out of nothing.
It’s called subtractive
I’m losing you to law school, neuroses,
the cool friends, the cool pills, the late nights,
the coke, molly, and special K days, Instagram
likes, your boyfriend’s coming back off tour,
words like “exclusive,” “inappropriate,”
“shameless,” “buddy,” it was nice
while it lasted.
FP: But the pain you’re writing about, the heartbreak and the unrequited feelings, is valid, no?
AM: I’ve led a very privileged life by most standards. I’m hesitant to say that the pain I felt from having a girl I liked not be into me is “valid.” It’s absurd. But I feel like every writer works with what they have and tries to be the best writer they can be writing about their own circumstances.
FP: Do you ever feel like sabotaging your perfect life to boost your writing career?
AM: No, I think that’s so crazy. There are definitely people who have gotten out of relationships to write about their emotional pain. But I don’t know about throwing away another person’s feelings and happiness. I think being in a sort of a healthy, stable, happy relationship has cut down on the number of times that I’ve come home late at night and said, “I’m writing a frickin’ poem right now.” But it makes it easier for me to just live my life. It makes it fun to be me, and if that means that I’m not writing as many poems or the same types of poems six months from now or a year from now then so be it.
I’ve also heard that there are also other genres of writing, I can’t confirm, but we’ll see. As with this collection, I have a lot of older material and there’s still something there I think, but it was written by 25-year-old me or 23-year-old me. It could use my 27-year-old’s editing touch.
FP: You do these two very different things, editing a sort of viral site and writing poetry. That must require you to use very different muscles in your brain.
AM: So different. They have close to absolutely nothing in common.
When you’re spending 40 hours a week at your job and half an hour a week working on your creative writing, it does have an effect on how you see yourself and how you feel.
But that’s a good question. I don’t know. Questions of creative identity are never necessarily rock solid. I’ll say that I’ve felt in the past few months more like a poet than I had in several years prior. And part of it is how much time, in a very material way, you’re dedicating to writing. When you’re spending 40 hours a week at your job and half an hour a week working on your creative writing, it does have an effect on how you see yourself and how you feel. It was really reassuring for me when I was working on the manuscript and when I heard it had been shortlisted. It was such an affirmation.
So I think if it’s something you’re so passionate about, it’s just a matter of throwing yourself back into it a little bit. Finding the space to reconnect and sticking with it. God knows if you’re a bit out of practice, it’s not going to be just like old times. The first poem you write is going to be a real turd poem.
When I found out the manuscript had been shortlisted, I felt like this great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. For two years or so, I hadn’t felt like a writer, I’d felt like a fraud. Someone with a day job sending out poems every six months. I’d wonder, “What the hell am I doing with my life, my friends are out there being writers, publishing, getting acclaimed for their work,” and so on. Whereas I was dedicating my life to this very adult 40-hours-a-week kind of job.
Maybe you can have it all?
FP: Wow, yeah. This is all going to be very relatable. A man who has it all.
AM: “Local diva Alex Manley really has it all. Check out his poetry collection.”
But OK, here’s a thing I want to add. Paradoxically, I think what enabled me to put together this collection was the fact that I was working and I’d gotten to a point where I hadn’t seen myself as a “writer” for such a long time. I’m so bad with self-imposed pressure, and I feel like a lot of writers probably are. You psych yourself out a little bit by feeling like, “Oh, if I don’t write the great Canadian novel in my early 20s then I’m a failure. I’m done for and nothing is worth it.” I wrote two novels that were both really wonderfully terrible in vastly different ways during my undergrad. Thankfully, they’ve never come close to seeing the light of day.
But it really wasn’t until two and a half years into working a full-time job and kind of slowly feeling further and further away from a writing career that I had enough of a “Hey, what the hell” kind of attitude about it. Where I didn’t feel that pressure, thinking “I have to.” It was more like, “At this point, if it doesn’t work out it’s fine, because I have other stuff going on in my life and it won’t be the end of the world. It won’t absolutely destroy me like it might have when I was younger.”
I felt like it was useful learning that you can have some success by taking a step back, I guess. And then, as a corollary, that being too intense can be detrimental to your process.
*This is no longer the working title.
Alex Manley is a 27-year-old Montreal writer. He graduated from Concordia University’s creative writing program in 2013 and currently works full time as an editor. His writing has appeared in HTMLGiant, Shabby Doll House, the Fanzine, and Maisonneuve, among others. He is left-handed.