Stephen Thomas

Part 3 of The Puritan‘s Summer 2016 Omnibus

Every summer, The Puritan Editorial Staff conducts a brief interview with past magazine contributors who have published a book in the last year. In the third installment, we hear from Stuart Ross, Stephen Thomas, and Laura Clarke.

 

“My Most Experimental Poetry Book to Date”: E Martin Nolan Grills Stuart Ross

 

E Martin Nolan: It’s well known now that your latest book, A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent, constitutes a total sell out. How do you defend your move from the authenticity on display in your poems from The Puritan’s Issue 27, to the gross, crowd-pleasing efforts in this recent collection? How could you stoop so low as to convincingly touch on such fluff as drone warfare and the deaths of loved ones?

Stephen Thomas

Stuart Ross is the author of 15 books of fiction, poetry, and essays

Stuart Ross: Well, the two poems in The Puritan’s Issue 27 do, in fact, also appear in my commercial sell-out collection! I did try to sneak in a few poems with integrity that I could turn to in order to defend myself. But here’s the truth: my intention with A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent was to create a book that largely followed a certain vein of my writing that has existed all along: accessible, narrative poems, with a greater proportion than ever before of poems about family, autobiographical poems, poems of both grief and, occasionally, celebration. I wanted to create a book that was “less weird” than any of my previous nine collections. The irony is that this book, then, is that it is my most experimental poetry book to date: the experiment being to deliberately write a non-experimental collection that could have the broadest possible appeal, while still staying true to my principles and aesthetics. In this way, I have approached such greeting-card subject matter as drone warfare, my parents’ deaths, and chemotherapy.

I wanted to create a book that was “less weird” than any of my previous nine collections.

Stuart Ross is the author of 15 books of fiction, poetry, and essays. His many dozens of chapbooks include Nice Haircut, Fiddlehead (Puddles of Sky Press); A Pretty Good Year (Nose in Book Publishing), and In In My Dream (BookThug). Stuart is a member of the improvisational noise trio Donkey Lopez, whose CDs include Juan Lonely Night and Working Class Burro. He is a founding member of the Meet the Presses collective and has his own imprint, a stuart ross book, at Mansfield Press. Stuart lives in Cobourg, Ontario, and blogs at bloggamooga.blogspot.ca.

 

“They Don’t Want You to Write Emotionally”: Fawn Parker and Stephen Thomas in Conversation

 

Fawn Parker: Each piece in The Jokes is in one way or another a “joke,” though they range from pretty comical/absurd to dealing with heavy stuff like death and depression. Often it feels like a way for you to be more vulnerable without having to totally put yourself on the line—to open up under the guise of joke-telling (the way we might slip and say too much on Facebook chat and end with “lol”). Can you talk a bit about the role of the “joke” here?

Stephen Thomas

Stephen Thomas is the author of The Jokes (Bookthug)

Stephen Thomas: Thanks for the question! What you’ve said strikes me as something I often say about the book, but you’ve said it more succinctly. In fact, you’ve intuited how the whole book came about. One day a funny little story occurred to me (“Oasis,” which made it into the book, unlike a lot of early ones), and it had something real in it that I didn’t feel like I’d caught in any other form at the time, so I pursued it. I didn’t think I was really allowed to write fiction like that, though (“They don’t want you to write emotionally!” —DJ Khaled), so I called what I was doing “jokes,” not stories, to trick myself into being allowed to write this way. They would often start with some kind of conceptual conceit, like the “knock knock” joke or whatever, but then I’d arrive at some kind of real truth or feeling. If you read the book (general you—I know you, Fawn, read it) you can see many of them aren’t as obviously working in one of those established joke idioms, and that’s because the more I wrote the more I realized the emotionally real stuff was where most of the gold was, and the conceptual framework kind of fell away after a while. I’m writing an essay right now that’s partly about men and their emotional expression and I think a lot could be said about how all that intersects with this dynamic, but maybe I’ll just gesture at that intersection and walk away, like … a man? Like a gesturing, walking man. Okay bye!

Stephen Thomas lives in Toronto.

 

“The Job Was My Enemy”: Laura Clarke Promises to Push Spencer Gordon Down the Stairs

 

Spencer Gordon: Laura, we were joking around the other week—semi-seriously—about what we would do to avoid working. I believe we discussed hurling ourselves from rooftops and pursuing comas (anything to get a little break from the soul-destroying qualities of wage-based labour). You know me, but I responded viscerally to much of the way you talk about jobs, shifts, offices, and other existential/capitalist sinkholes throughout Decline of the Animal Kingdom. Which leads me to my question. Poetry is an awful lot of work. But what’s the crucial difference, to you, between writing-as-work, and work-for-wage? What does writing give you—is it a vacation from labour, or a more refined version of it? An escape from work, or work that’s suddenly stripped of its demeaning cruelties? Tell me—and let’s talk some more about comas.

Stephen Thomas

Laura Clarke is the 2013 winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada

Laura Clarke: Spencer, I’m always down to talk about comas or push you down a flight of stairs if you’re feeling like you need a break from office life. You might be joking but I often fantasized about a tragic accident befalling me in order to score a few months off at the job that inspired the general depressive atmosphere of my book. This was an overall toxic work environment with a clear-cut evil corporate agenda, fraught interpersonal relationships, low wages, and a supervisor who advised me I should use the bathroom on my breaks only. The department was composed of a lot of women and people of colour, but somehow it was white men in the managerial positions, from immediate supervisor all the way to the executive level. It was the worst example of work-for-wage, where your hard work, effort, and sense of individuality instantly evaporate into the air-conditioned, white-walled void. It was simultaneously banal and absurd. It was a simple time, really: the job was my enemy, writing was my necessary escape, and the bizarre synergy bred a strangely productive creative space. The writing provided catharsis while the jargon of the surrounding work culture and the shape of my daily routine permeated my imagination and guided the form, tone, and language of my writing.

I like to think my book reflects my ambivalence towards conventional office work, rather than simply offering a straight up vision of terror, boredom, and apathy in some corporate sociopathic garbage-person factory.

Since then, I’ve worked in more humane office environments and spent more time on non-poetry writing projects, so the line between writing-as-work and work-for-wage line has become increasingly blurred and changeable. There’s been an unexpected element of creativity to some of my jobs. I was once a professional resume writer, inhabiting the minds of marine biologists and accountants on a daily basis. And there’s an unexpected aspect of drudgery to writing at times, especially when I’m trying to wrangle a bunch of material into a larger cohesive project or attempting to meet a deadline for a paid assignment.
I like to think my book reflects my ambivalence towards conventional office work, rather than simply offering a straight up vision of terror, boredom, and apathy in some corporate sociopathic garbage-person factory. If you’re a person who is sensitive to details and thrives on routine, there’s a lot of comfort, weird beauty, and camaraderie in the structure a 9-5 job provides. Routine is a key word for me these days—it’s deeply necessary for me on both the physical and mental level and also something that I’m currently writing about as a creative subject. I guess you could say my writing process is composed of moments of intense drudgery and grace, a space of both work and play, deeply engaged with my day-to-day labour while also existing on an entirely fantastical plane in my imagination. It’s a place where creativity and routine collide to produce something on my own terms.

Laura Clarke’s work has appeared in a variety of publications including PRISM International, Grain, the National Post, and the Antigonish Review. She is the 2013 winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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