David James Brock

Midway upon the journey of our life, David James Brock found himself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.

David James Brock is a playwright, poet, and librettist whose plays and operas have been performed in cities across Canada and the UK. He is the winner of the 2011 Herman Voaden Canadian National Playwriting Award. Brock penned the libretto for The Sloans Project (composer: Gareth Williams), which was most recently performed at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival (previous: Glasgow’s 2011 Merchant City Festival, Tapestry New Opera’s 2011/2012 season). Other highlights include libretto for Sewing the Earthworm for the Canadian Art Song Project (Toronto, 2011. Composer: Brian Harman) and Pretty Boy for the Paul Dresher Ensemble (San Francisco, 2012. Composer: Jack Perla). Brock’s debut poetry collection, Everyone is CO2, was published by Wolsak & Wynn in spring 2014. He is currently working with Scottish Opera on Breath Cycle, a multimedia operatic song cycle developed with cystic fibrosis patients. He lives in Toronto and can be found on Twitter @davidjamesbrock.

Puritan correspondent Kris Bone recently caught up with David and discussed his various creative endeavours in playwriting, poetry, and libretto.

Kris Bone: As a multi-talented playwright, poet, and librettist, how do you find the time to juggle all of your passions? Is there a hierarchy of artistic pursuits in your mind? Do you have any particular method for organizing your time between your varied literary pursuits? And which of the three do you find most rewarding?

David James Brock: After working on Everyone is CO2 for the past couple of years, finally seeing the printed book is rewarding and feels like a trophy with my name on it, but it’s still a bit fresh in terms of a coherent reflection.

Theatre, poetry, and opera each have their own rewards and I don’t know if I could say that one trumps another. I hope I’m one of those people who can be present and passionate about the project I’m working on at the time, but obviously deadlines help with time management decisions. Lately, libretto and poetry have been priorities simply because composers and editors are often waiting for me to get my part done. Collaboration is a great motivator.

My most rewarding project to date is my ongoing work on Breath Cycle, an opera project created together with composer Gareth Williams. Breath Cycle began as a creative project exploring frailty in voice in those with cystic fibrosis. Gareth and I wrote short operas inspired by conversations with participants during the project, and their voices were recorded and put together through video and sound editing. With support from Scottish Opera and cystic fibrosis caregiver/researcher Dr. Gordon MacGregor, Breath Cycle is also exploring the effect that learning classical singing techniques has on the respiratory health of participants. Initial studies after the pilot project in Glasgow showed an increase in participant’s lung capacity. Working with those affected by cystic fibrosis, having them share their stories with Gareth and me, and then hearing them sing the songs we create has been a profound collaborative experience.

Kris Bone: Though your poetry has been published by some of Toronto’s best chapbook presses (TERU and Ferno House), this is your first official poetry collection. How does it feel to be launching a book in “the big leagues?” Were there any differences in the publishing process between these chapbook presses and the publisher for Everyone Is CO2, Buckrider Books?

David James Brock: The Emergency Response Unit and Ferno House were both awesome to me, particularly since it’s taken me a while to feel comfortable with the word “poet” in my bio. Putting together chapbooks with poets who had a head start on publishing (Leigh Nash, Andrew Faulkner, Spencer Gordon, Mat Laporte) was certainly a great preparation for Everyone Is CO2, but the attention provided by both the editing and design team at those presses always felt big league.

As for how this book makes me feel beyond the initial confidence boost, I’m not sure. The launch made me feel good because people I liked were there. Apparently I got some hoots and hollers. That doesn’t happen in my day-to-day. As for how I feel now that there is a book with my name on it out in the Universe, that’s maybe out of my control at this point, though I love reading from it and hearing about the effects my poetry has on the audience, and the surprising places it takes them. I’m happy it’s out there, but it’s a different kind of feeling than producing a play or an opera. There’s a different, perhaps slower sort of climax to its release that hasn’t happened yet—or it might happen so subtly, I’ll miss it completely.

Kris Bone: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you admire the poetry of Paul Vermeersch, your editor at Buckrider. Was this an admiration that predated knowing Paul? What was it like working with him?

David James Brock: I had read Paul’s The Fat Kid before I had ever met him. I am attracted to a narrative element of poetry, and I liked that this collection tells a story. My first conversation with Paul took place at the Victory Café in Toronto and concerned Back to the Future 3; a few years later, we got around to poetry.

Working with Paul during the editing process was a great experience. We’d meet in person (in his living room, surrounded by books, or the Inter Steer on Roncesvalles, beside the jukebox), I’d read the poems aloud, and we’d discuss them. Reading aloud helped me get to know the poems, many of which I had only known through a computer screen. Sometimes I’d read a poem and we’d both decide that it wasn’t right for the collection (or as Paul would say, “put it in the bullpen”). Sometimes I’d read a poem and we’d hear the good parts at the same time as the not-so-good. It was when Paul would ask me to explain a poem or a line that I’d get to unlock the language and intention of a piece, or where I’d decide to let a poem go.

My favourite poem to edit with Paul is called “Daydream Nation,” a ten-line, heavily footnoted poem—with three pages of trivia-based explanations. We discussed everything from Sonic Youth to Nobel Prize Laureates to Billy Joel to pangolins (an animal that I had never heard of, despite a zoology degree, until Paul showed me its picture). “Daydream Nation” felt like a poem we’d been discussing since we met.

Kris Bone: To finish, I’d like to ask the question every artist loves best: What else have you been working on, and what’s the next step for you? Anything in the works?

David James Brock: I like this question when there is stuff in the works. I am lucky to have a lot of projects on the go. It’s been a busy summer. In May, I reworked an older play of mine, Snow Bride, which ran for seven nights at Toronto’s Box Theatre. It’s a one-woman show starring Katie Hood, who plays the role of Helena: a poet, a fiancé and an addict. No one shows up for her bachelorette party, so she invites the only friend she has left: cocaine. The play explores the challenge of addiction and the relationships around the addict.

In July, Theatre Lab is producing the premiere of my play Centre of the Universe for the Toronto Fringe Festival. It’s a site-specific play taking place in the main room of The Labyrinth Bar. That play is based on a short story I wrote a few years ago about a terrorist attack on Toronto that begins with planes flying into the CN Tower.

And my work on Breath Cycle continues with composer Gareth Williams in Glasgow. We were recently nominated for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the Learning and Participation category for our creation Breath Cycle, which, as I mentioned above, explores frailty in voice through singing and opera. Recognition from a prestigious body like the RPS comes at a good time since we are set to expand both the clinical and artistic strands of the project to London, Toronto and New York. And of course, there a lot of readings for Everyone is CO2.

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