News and Interviews

At the Desk: Samuel Andreyev

Samuel Andreyev is the author of the poetry collection The Relativistic Empire (BookThug). His other artistic background, as an acclaimed composer and musician, is on display in his second collection, as well as the influence of his adopted home country, France. Sparse and bright, with an experimental impulse worthy of the great French writers, The Relativistic Empire is sharp, funny and elegant.

Today as part of our At the Desk series, Samuel takes us into his writing space near the French-German border, and tells us why Windex is part of his writing supply list, why you could borrow one hundred trillion dollars from him (sort of) and why an orderly and boring office works so well for a writer.


At the desk

I live and work in Strasbourg, France, a city which sits on the other side of the Rhine from Germany, and my office is located in a particularly quiet and boring neighborhood just south of the city centre. Strasbourg is in many ways an ideal place for me, because it’s small and convenient, but also very beautiful and culturally vibrant. From here, you can get to Switzerland in just under an hour, and the small German town of Kehl is only 15 minutes away.

I have always been fanatically precise and orderly in my working habits. I am at my desk at 8:30 every morning, and work until 6:00 PM, generally taking weekends off unless I have a concert or teaching commitments. I do creative work only when I am able to summon all of my enthusiasm and focus, and if I sense that these are flagging, I quickly stop and do something else instead. In this way, I am able to get a lot done.

In 2009, I decided to buy a glass desktop. I am now unable to conceive of writing on anything else, despite the added expense of keeping windex in abundant supply. I tend to write in a tiny, cramped hand on loose sheets of paper, and it is essential that I have a hard surface to work on in order to get that sense of incision. Most wooden desks — especially ones made out of soft woods like pine, or, even worse, laminated particle board — have rather spongey surfaces with a distinct ‘give’ and I find this interferes with my work.

I have a collection of maybe five thousand vintage Bic pens which I keep in stacks of transparent plastic boxes to the right of my desk. By this point I probably have just about every model made since the 1950s. I constantly change pens, and also paper stock, so that the statistical likelihood of my ever repeating any combination of pen and paper is virtually zero. I feel this keeps me fresh. Generally, my preferred stocks are yellow legal pads and inexpensive notepads collected from many different countries during my travels. Working with such inexpensive materials removes the intimidation factor. There is no possible concern for wasting a beautiful sheet of stationery, for instance. When materials are cheap enough, there is virtually no difference between their being on your desk or in the wastebasket. That is a tremendous gift to a writer.

In 2003, I went to IKEA just outside Paris and bought two Billy bookcases. I still have them despite having moved maybe 7 or 8 times over the past 12 years. My way of curbing my natural tendency to accumulate cultural materials is that I always own exactly enough books to fill those two bookcases (and no ‘cheating’ though stacking books in double rows). Generally, if I buy a new book, I have to give away or otherwise divest myself of an old one. This has resulted in my having a library of exceptional personal value, since I don’t hang on to books unless they have enduring resonance for me.

I keep a small number of carefully-chosen talismans (talismen?) in my office for moral accompaniment. These include a French musette (a simple folk oboe, popular in the 19th century) given to me by a former teacher; a handmade toy piano with real strings which I bought from an antiques dealer in Paris; artwork by friends of mine including Mark Connery, French painter Morgan Bancon and American artist Ronald Bowen; and a one hundred trillion dollar note, issued by the reserve bank of Zimbabwe during a period of hyperinflation. My sense is that objects are obstacles by default, so unless they have some direct and manifest utility to my working process, I view them with mistrust.

By now it should be clear that I am constitutionally unable to handle clutter and disorder. This is not a reflection of a closed personality, on the contrary: I am excessively open-minded and the only way I can get anything done is by putting blinders on and eliminating distractions. I think it was Mallarmé who said that you should be as orderly and boring as possible in your private life, so that you are free to be as unruly as possible in your creative work. This I have found to be absolutely true.

Samuel Andreyev

Samuel Andreyev is a writer, composer, teacher and performer. His vocal, chamber, and orchestral compositions are performed in countries around the world. He operated The Expert Press, devoted to contemporary poetry, for several years in Toronto. His first full collection of poems, Evidence, was published by Quattro Books in 2009. Born and raised in Ontario, Andreyev studied composition, musical acoustics, orchestration, electroacoustics, and musical analysis at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMDP) and IRCAM (Paris). He has lived in France since 2003, where he is currently employed as a Professor of Musical Analysis at the Conservatoire de Cambrai, and as a freelance composer, writer and oboist. Connect with Andreyev on Twitter @samuelandreyev.