Writer in Residence

“There Are Lots of Good Non-Poetry Things to Assign Your Time To,” an Interview with Jacob Mcarthur Mooney

By James Lindsay

Jacob McArthur Mooney is an author of three collections of poetry, an occasional critic, and the current host of the Pivot reading series. His latest, Don’t be Interesting, explores the cult of personality and spectacle as ritual at the end of history Don’t be Interesting is already one of my favorite books of the year, so I had a few question for Jacob about criticism, spectacle and routine.

James Lindsay: A quote from a 2012 National Post piece you wrote ("Canada has too many poets and not enough Critics") keeps coming up whenever I read something new about you. Four years on, do you still feel the same way? And if so, how does it affect Canadian poetry?

Jacob McArthur Mooney: I don't know if I feel more or less attached to that statement than I do any other broad four-year-old generalization that I may have made. I'm tempted to selfishly pitch it overboard because I've largely walked away from most of my former critical practice. I would say maybe that in the interim I've expanded the realm but kept the essential notion of that idea. Canada has too many poets for the number of people it has interested in poetry, and committed to helping it thrive. A good critic wants to help poetry thrive, even if they're grumpy and hard to please. I've slowed down my critical work but tried to keep up an activist's commitment to the public expression of the art, through other avenues the most obvious of which is spending my old review-writing time running a reading series. I still think we have a lot of poets who, when they say they're committed to poetry they mean THEIR poetry, their craft and consideration. And of course they should be committed there, because writing is difficult and requires a great amount of self-attention. But I still think that everyone should spend some time looking out, too, at the public craft or the public performance or even just "the public", any public. That part of that old provocation feels true.

JL: Don't be Interesting is bookended by sports-themed poems, and there's much spectacle, from politics to concerts, throughout the book. What is the connection for you between poetry, sport and spectacle?

JMM: Thanks James. I'm really happy you recognized that. It was one of those framing concerns that I thought would matter only to me and no one else.

I don't think of them as much as sports poems as poems about audience. The audience that comes to major multi-use sporting events to root steadfastly for their heroes are, in many parts, the speaking voice of the book. The sports in DBI: pro wrestling, baseball, combat sports, boxing, NASCAR, all built their audience through appeals to the working class.

The future that Don't Be Interesting focuses on is a future of working-class crowds: malleable and terrifying and sentimental. Maybe no human configuration has been as weaponized for evil as a working-class crowd. From the inquisition to the imperialist wars of Europe to Donald Trump rallies, the working-class crowd has a shoddy record as a social actor.

In the first poem, set inside the midcentury futurism of The Astrodome, the crowd has shucked off its controllers and is experimenting with revolution and magic. But by the last poem of the book (set in an unnamed multi-use sports facility that should be left up to the reader but for me is mostly The Big O in Montreal or the L.A. Coliseum) we're left with elegy and decay. So it's a sad book in the end. But that store of mass experience that sport provides still keeps its chronicle for the speakers; it's a way for the crowd to make sense of the designed environment they live in. Also the designed environment I live in, of course.

JL: Since the publication of your last book, Folk , you got married, had a child and taken over the Pivot reading series. Has your writing routine changed now that you have more responsibility? Where do you find the time to focus on poetry?

JM: I think I've always benefitted from not having too much of a writing "routine", exactly. When I used to write more prose, I would need to carve out time and sit down and lock the door and all that, but the early drafts of poems, at least, let me be a bit more ad hoc in my behaviours. I've switched away from paper notebooks and onto cloud word processing and have gotten good writing done on the walk to work, during kid-naps, etc. You learn to lean out your list of needs.

At the same time though, I recognise that this is still likely a less-productive stretch in my writing life, and I'm fine with that. There are lots of good non-poetry things to assign your time to, and I've previously gone through cycles where I've had first great volumes of writing time, and then very little. I think it's important to let that be. If I've written less in the last year or two, I've read more. That'll be useful to me when things cycle back around.

JL: McClelland & Stewart published all three of your books. What was your relationship with M&S editor Ellen Seligman like? How did she influence your work?

JMM: Yes, so, as context: during this email exchange Ellen died and her death was reported to the world. As publisher, Ellen accepted my first and second books for publication and, I suspect, was involved in the acceptance of Don't Be Interesting though its formal acceptance came from the new poetry board. Beyond that, Ellen acted as an advisor and occasional corrector of my behaviour.

I think that there are, maybe, five to ten people responsible for why I get to do things like publish poems and give readings and basically live a (somewhat public) life as a poet. Obviously my wife is at the top of the list. But maybe second from the top is Ellen, along with the rest of the team at M&S and my teachers and classmates at the University of Guelph MFA. She's important to me.

Ellen was such a professional and kept things so close to "the work" with her coworkers and authors, that I think part of what makes her passing so difficult is nearly everyone she helped is left having not adequately said Thank You. This is something I've heard from other authors, too. If Ellen believed in you, she made you believe in yourself so much that you tended to fall behind with your Thank Yous. It's sad that those debts will have to remain unacknowledged.

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: Toronto.

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.

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.