Owain Nicholson is a poet whose debut collection, Digsite will be published by Nightwood Editions next month. We had a chance to talk about his writing process, inspirations and literary influences.
DB: First of all, congratulations on Digsite. It's a beautiful collection. Can we talk about all the archaeological references, both literal and metaphorical? I'd love to hear how your background in archaeology informs your writing.
ON: Thank you. Most of my family are anthropologists or archaeologists, so I guess I soaked it up as a kid. I worked several seasons in the Alberta Oilsands. And that is where most of the collection takes its grounding. There’s the practicing, physical archaeology which is the digging and the bushwhacking and being swarmed by bugs. And then there's the intellectual archaeology which is the concept of past people and current people.
This is where the poetry comes in. Essentially anthropology is the study of people, and archaeology the study of people by what they leave behind.
I like to write using a set of concrete, physical images (a kind of foundation for a house, say) and to use those images as an aid to leap into the metaphoric, the emotional, the intellectual (the house atop the foundation). The archaeology and the poetry are an integrated system, both vehicle and fuel, but poetry is also a bridge into the possible shared experience art allows between people, and also with the past.
I guess, with archaeology, I find a tool which gives my writing another lens through which to see people, and in which to look at myself among them.
DB: That’s really interesting. One of the things I love is the beautiful imagery paired with unexpected social observation and commentary. (I loved Let's Dismember Cultural Superiority. 'They tell us write, always write... what difference does my grammar make?') Was it hard to get the balance between description and commentary right? How did you manage it?
ON: Throughout my education, particularly my creative writing education, I've always felt assaulted by the expectation that I should know every single thing I do in the writing, and why.
DB: Right. I remember feeling that way in my undergrad, the frustration of constantly having to define yourself and your writing choices.
ON: It is sort of as if we are expected to be able to clinically, scientifically, justify every effect, every use of punctuation or clause or structure. And I resist this because if that were necessary art would never have intuition, I would never have the curiosity to explore that imagination. I would never write.
DB: Of course.
ON: But that doesn't mean I didn't have intent, an idea I wanted to impart. I wanted to stay away from a hard-line approach. I don't think I looked for balance.
DB: What was your editing process like? How long did it take to compile the whole collection, and was it difficult to stick to theme, or did it feel natural?
ON: I think I did about 35 full drafts over 4 years or so.
My publisher and editor said something really neat when we started talking about editing: there is the book you wrote and the book it must become. It is a lovely evolution.
I write largely by intuition. I have never had a powerful mind for structure or form. I struggle with this in fiction.
I would say that my experience of it is much like my experience with depression: some days are good days; some days are bad days. Regardless of which day, you must get out of bed, make coffee, and you must work. I wonder, sometimes, how much of my writing is inspired by struggling through those bad days.
DB: I know what you mean. Who are some of your literary influences?
ON: My largest influences are Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont, the Malazan books (all of them). I'm also influenced by Ursula le Guin, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen R. Donaldson, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Stephen King. Right now I'm reading Ishiguro, Marquez, and Doretta Lau's How does a single blade of grass thank the sun? for the second time.
DB: I love Doretta Lau’s book too. It just made a great list in Room Magazine this month.
ON: Music is also part of my writing. Bruce Cockburn and REM are spectacular. Also Noel Gallagher, Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith's Horses. Red hot Chilli Peppers and Florence + the Machine.
For poetry specifically, I draw on Heaney and Rilke; and perhaps more heavily influenced by Tim Lilburn, Carla Funk, Steven Price, Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, all of which I am thankful for and lucky enough to have had as mentors. Karen Solie's Pigeon is incredible. I am also most happily lost to Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. It is close to my heart; a most important gift.
DB: What are you working on these days?
ON: These days I am working on my MFA in Creative Writing through Guelph University. There will be a fiction thesis, I hope, which will come of that. A novel. I'm switching back to fiction for now. I also have my own novel project outside of the MFA which I am plugging away on. It could be series but I'm not sure yet.
DB: Sounds great. Look forward to reading them!
You can catch Owain in person in Toronto on October 18 - more details here.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Danila Botha is a fiction writer based in Toronto. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she has lived in Ra’anana, Israel, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her first collection of short stories, Got No Secrets (Tightrope Books, 2010) was praised by the Globe and Mail, the Chronicle Herald, and the Cape Town Times. It was also named one of Britannica’s Books of the Year (Canadian short stories) in 2011, and was published in South Africa (Modjaji Books, 2011). Danila has guest-edited the National Post’s “The Afterword,” and her short stories have appeared in Broken Pencil Magazine, Douglas Glover’s Numero Cinq Magazine, Joyland and more. Her first novel, the critically acclaimed Too Much on the Inside was published by Quattro Books in June 2015. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers in the correspondence program in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of short stories.