JC Bouchard, creator of FIRST WORDS
I met poet JC Bouchard my first month emerging into Toronto’s literary scene. It was January 2015. I had been writing poetry at that point for maybe six months and releasing pieces as audio recordings on an old Bandcamp account. This however was my first venture out into this sphere, where I began reading poetic (and at that time more performative) work at open mics and sharing my poetry with people who weren’t just my friends on Facebook. I often think back to this beginning (one of many), and juxtapose it against how my life as a writer looks now.
FIRST WORDS is a literary podcast recorded out of JC Bouchard’s home that does just this; it asks poets, writers, and publishers how it all began and those stories tend to give context for how their work or their approach to writing looks now. I exchanged emails with him over this past week to get a sense of why this podcast was an important thing for him to start.
Suzanna Derewicz: There’s something about an in-person interview that offers realness, particularly when it gives less focus to the “here and now,” more focus to the “back then,” and attention to “why in the first place?” Writers stop talking like writers but like people, and it places members of what can at times feel like a disparate community back somewhere familiar, a place they all remember being, where they tried, fought, screwed up, and finally got something right. This is at least why I’ve connected with the podcast, but what were your reasons for asking writers to reveal a bit of their roots? Why in this form?
JC Bouchard: I’ve always been interested in origins. I think they’re always humming in the background of a person’s evolution. I think this might be the case especially for writers. Although they inevitably tread new territories throughout their careers, they often still carry pieces of their formidable years in their work. Really, it’s inescapable. It might be their hometowns, culture, friends, parents, or tragedies. I’m infinitely curious about a writer’s relationship with their past. I think a writer at some point makes a concrete choice to “become” a writer. To this day it seems so odd to me that people would choose this art form as their mode of expression. Even my own choice to write poetry as a lifelong creative practice still sort of baffles me. But I’ve found that writing often chooses people. But how? And why? I think the first idea with the podcast was to get to the bottom of that even if in a small way.
To do all of this in a podcast seemed like a natural choice and I didn’t consider any other form. Besides the obvious popularity with podcasts, there’s something very immediate and impactful about hearing a writer’s voice and having them speak in earnest, as they are. As you said, they talk like people and not like writers, and I think the podcast facilitates this well. I’ve met a lot of people and had incredible conversations with writers throughout my short time in Toronto’s literary scene. I wanted to capture those conversations in these episodes—completely informal, without rules or boundaries, and absolutely no filter or fear of offending some invisible audience.
I wanted people to be off their guard where there’s no opportunity to reach for pre-packed answers. I think the podcast has worked well in this way, at least so far, and maybe listeners are enjoying that.
SD: Have there been similar echoes in the stories of those you’ve interviewed. Are there places where these writers, publishers, and facilitators shared common beginnings?
JC: There are only seven episodes so far and I’ve already detected patterns. The most common one is struggles with mental heath. I don’t think it’s much of a secret that writers and artists in general have some sort of issue with depression, anxiety, or other form of mental illness. It’s interesting because I’ve never structured the podcast to talk about this specifically and I never really ask about it. Guests bring it up on their own because these struggles are intimately tied to how they started writing and perhaps why they continue to write.
I’m always amazed with the authority people have when they openly talk about these struggles. It’s so common for people to feel ashamed because of their mental health issues, and the fact that they talk freely and openly is a sign that it’s finally starting to be okay to share these stories and experiences in a public way.
I’ve found that writing often chooses people. But how? And why? I think the first idea with the podcast was to get to the bottom of that even if in a small way.
There are some other similarities such as particular books or writers that sort of crack open this whole new world that writers never knew existed when they started out. Nicole Brewer talked about Malarky by Anakana Schofield in the first episode. James Southcott and Charlotte van Ryn talked about Sue Goyette in the second. These books and writers inspired or encouraged them to explore writing on a deeper level. I think every writer has had that.
SD: When I recorded my FIRST WORDS podcast with you a few weeks back, I was wary of how it sounded and what I said, but when it came out, I was surprised at how freely I found that I spoke, and how open I felt listening to what I had to say—as though some apprehension or self-consciousness fell away which wouldn’t have happened if I was talking about heady things or promotional things (which is what most people are interviewed for). Have any other writers expressed surprise at the interviewing process, or its culmination? Has anything surprised you about what people have shared in any of the podcasts you’ve done thus far?
JC: No one has expressed anything like that to me yet, but the podcast is still in its early stages. Maybe over time more guests will have some opinions they’ll share with me. I’m interested to hear how the interview process compares to others, specifically for writers who have a lot of experience with being interviewed. Maybe some are disappointed by the lack of structure or its free-form style, but maybe others find this liberating. Hopefully it’s the latter.
I’m also surprised by the different directions the conversations take throughout an episode. The basic premise is origins, but because these are open conversations, they often take an unexpected route. For example, we might end up talking about literary scenes, community building, politics, feminism, and health and wellness. There’s very little I do as an interviewer to steer these tangents back to a writer’s past because I don’t really want to. They go where they go and I think for the better.
SD: If you could have any writer or publisher on your podcast, fictional or not, possible or not, who would it be, and what about their beginnings would you discuss?
JC: Barbara Gowdy immediately comes to mind. I would want to pinpoint the early experiences that influenced her short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love. What kind of early life must she have had to think of those stories? Having her as a guest would certainly be possible since she lives in Toronto, but from what I understand she doesn’t participate in many interviews and isn’t very much interested in being a public figure. So, with that, my chances of interviewing Gowdy are slim to nil (but of course this is obvious). Another is Lynn Crosbie. She is also a Toronto-based writer who without a doubt has had an incredibly varied life filled with certain tragedies but also triumphs. I met her once with some friends and had to resist asking her all sorts of questions, not only about herself but the writers she started out with and Toronto’s earlier literary scene, but it wasn’t the time nor place. Maybe some day I’ll actually ask that she comes on the show.
SD: The interviewing process you take, as I understand it, is very organic. It’s very much a conversation—writers talking stream of consciousness with you, with a few points you circle back to. As you continue to grow and pursue more of these conversations, what about the process do you like the most, and is there anything about it you want to shift or change the next time you sit down with someone?
JC: My favourite part of the process is letting the guests take complete ownership of the conversation. The episodes are really just them talking about whatever they want, interspersed with a few questions here and there. I think most interviewers know that the majority of people want to talk about the subjects that are important to them. They simply need a forum to do it in and a few primers to get them going.
I also love catching guests off guard. I didn’t do this when you were on, but usually I start recording the show in mid-conversation without their knowledge, and we just keep talking. It’s only after five or ten minutes that they realize that the show has already started. I always ask for permission to use those segments and they all have said yes so far.
I want to leave the actual conversation process unchanged but I would like to experiment more with intro and outro segments, and I have already started doing that. Most podcasts have a boilerplate intro segment but I like the idea of changing it to reflect the mood of each conversation. For example, using a certain type of music or, like the last episode, birds chirping and the ambient chatter of a crowded bar. I’m sure more ideas will come over time but for now I think I will leave it more or less unchanged.
SD: Where did you begin as a writer and how do those beginnings still influence you, or is that something we’ll hear about when someone interviews you on FIRST WORDS one day?
JC: I did my first writing of any kind when I was about 12 years old in an old mining town in Northern Ontario. For more on that, people can always read my short piece in The Puritan on hometowns and origins. Or better yet, listen to episode five of FIRST WORDS with guests Elizabeth Burns and Kait Fowlie.
SD: Are you ever nervous when you interview someone? Do you ever worry that it may not go well (especially in a community where we’re all so interconnected)? What’s your worst-case scenario interview? Is there a type of personality you’d find it challenging to talk with?
JC: I’m nervous before and during any social interaction, so the podcast is no exception. Like any conversation it may not be as organic as I’d like. Not everyone is as open as I might think. If not, it’s my responsibility as an interviewer to get them talking by asking certain questions and having the instinct to encourage discussion on a topic that they care about.
I also love catching guests off guard. I didn’t do this when you were on, but usually I start recording the show in mid-conversation without their knowledge, and we just keep talking.
But I’m not a journalist or a professional in any way. If the guest isn’t engaged in the conversation—if it’s like pulling teeth—then I think the episode would be a failure. But that wouldn’t be the guest’s fault. Some people are simply much more inner-thinking and are not always comfortable in first-time interactions.
A worst-case-scenario interview would be where a guest is so disappointed by my questions that they simply end the interview, or sit there squirming in discomfort because they’re too polite to tell me to shut the fuck up.
SD: At the end of each interview, when each guest has engaged so thoughtfully and honestly with your questions, what is it that you feel? What keeps you bringing writers back to the mic?
JC: I always feel like I’ve learned something new about someone, even about a guest who I’ve known for years. That’s one reason why I started to podcast—to satisfy my own selfish desires to know more about people’s inner lives.
When I learn something new like that, I feel grateful to know them. I feel privileged that they took the time to talk with me. It’s that curious fascination that keeps me doing more episodes. Plus, of course, I just love talking about literature and the lives of working writers.
SD: Who do you hope to have on the show next, or who can we expect to hear from in the coming episodes?
JC: Depending on the time this interview is published, the next guest will be André Babyn. He’s a fiction writer who I’ve seen read, and read with, multiple times. As many times as we’ve had brief chats, I really don’t know anything about his life.
There is a huge list of people I want to have on the show: A. Zachary, Jessica Bebenek, Ashley Obscura, Robin Richardson, Fawn Parker and Thomas Molander, Aaron Kozak, Sophie McCreesh, to name only a few. They’re always welcome to sit for a coffee or tea in my tiny apartment and chew the fat.
JC Bouchard’s poetry has appeared in The Puritan, Arc, Hart House Review (Winter Supplement), untethered, (parenthetical), BafterC, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Canadian Millennial Poets, and is forthcoming in PRISM International. In 2013, his poetry was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize and received Honourable Mention for the John Newlove Poetry Award from Bywords. In 2015, he co-founded the Worst Case Ontario poetry tour and performed in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, and New York. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Portraits (In/Words Press) and WOOL WATER (words(on)pages press). He hosts a literary podcast called FIRST WORDS and lives in Toronto.