"I Write to Make Sense of Worries" David James Brock on Finding the Calm in Poetry
Poet, librettist, and playwright David James Brock's second collection Ten-Headed Alien (Wolsak & Wynn), is making an impact as big and bold as its title. Poet Linda Besner called it "a sophisticated monster [where] language is a junkyard drum set of evil sounds" while poet and professor Daniel Scott Tysdal praised the book's "voices [which are] brimming with acuity, wit and imagination," saying the collection "chart[s] the frightening and inexorable breaking down of our times."
Packed with the strange and memorable, from an inverted mermaid to bionic pigeons, Brock takes readers to balloon farms on the moon and a plane crash in the BC interior as he searches for meaning and connection in our disconnected, troubled era.
We're excited to bring our recent conversation with David to you today, where he takes on our Poets in Profile series to discuss his writing process and life as a poet.
David tells us about the group of Toronto poets who inspired him to "find the calm" in his poems, how one poem became an entire collection, and the collections he's read recently that blew his socks off.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
David James Brock:
Diving into individual poems lets me step away from singular all-consuming through lines or characters in larger narrative pieces, which is appealing to me, especially as my attention span shrivels. Most of my early writing was with plays and then opera text, which often demands working through the same topic/characters for years (next month, I am premiering a play in Vancouver that I started writing in 2008), but I think poems have been a playground for more immediate, hot, concentrated thinking. There’s a poem- energy that lingers, long after initial impulse passes the baton to the editing process.
Thinking backwards to a specific moment though... I’ve never taken a formal poetry workshop, but I had a perception that started forming during my Masters degree, right-or-wrong, that poets were able to more nimbly flex their brain muscles across a wider variety of people and topics, even if there were thematic tentacles—that seemed cool. My social group my first few years in Toronto was mostly poets like Jeff Latosik, Aisha Sasha John, Sandy Pool, Jamie Forsythe, Jake Mooney, and besides being great writers, they all possessed this outward cool-calm of a Buddhist statue in a yoga studio, whereas I always felt like a gab-factory. My early poem dabbles trying to find that calm were great ways to simply keep an energy to writing when the exhausting process of getting larger projects produced brickwalled me.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
Dennis Lee’s “Hey, Mon” from Jelly Belly. It wasn’t the first poem of his I’d read/had read to me, but I remember my sister and I as kids repeating that 4 line poem to each other all the time for no obvious reason except the sheer playfulness of it. Even today, if I called her and said “Hey, Mon,” I know she’d finish the poem (Cool Mon, you a silly fool mon) before we got to talking about anything else. I know poems can be all sorts of things to all sorts of writers and readers, but I’m a sucker for a poem as play, as earworm, as conversation cajoler. Other than Yeats’s “A Drinking Song,” “Hey, Mon”might be only poem I could recite by heart.
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
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“Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: epic journeys, music and magic, romance, hallucination, those exclamation marks! An English teacher, Mr. Tignanelli, introduced that one to me in a grade 12 English class, and for five years after, I used my interest in that poem as a stand-in for an interest in poetry in general, even if I wasn’t really reading poems yet and was being a bit of a poser.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
I sometimes worry that my poetic inspiration can come off as shallow. I write to make sense of worries, but as of yet, I’ve had a hard time writing poems with grander political or social motivations with a sincerity that I see from those who do it right, in the same way I’ve maybe been able to do with my plays and operas. I’ve created theatre projects about topics including mental illness, disability advocacy, and the treatment of veterans, but I don’t know if my poems consciously go there. This is not a weakness of the form, though possibly my weakness with it.
But I don’t know what makes for unlikely inspiration. One thing that draws me to poetry is that momentary spark from an unlikely millisecond: hearing a piece of music in the perfect place, a cheese-induced nightmare, two pit bulls in matching bandanas on a subway car. Really, every poem I write seems like an entirely unlikely thing to me, and I want to ride that unicorn into the sunset. For Ten-Headed Alien, my inspirations are fairly on my sleeve (and Ingrid Paulson’s wicked book jacket) for the most part, and the elements of science fiction, prog rock, biology, and self-analysis don’t seem all that unlikely given those are things I consume on a day-to-day basis.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
Ten-Headed Alien is my second collection, and for both books, I didn’t think I was writing a book until... there it was. I hope this doesn’t come off as detached or bumbling, but I really had just set out to write a single poem called Ten-Headed Alien about what would happen if we lost the ten things that sustained life on my version of a decent Earth (water, friends, trees, thoughts, art, etc.). That single poem, which I had read at the High Park Reading Festival in like 2015, then turned into a longer poem and had me wondering if it could be a book length piece, so I started chasing the likes of Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (easy right?). I scaled back on that idea a bit, but that initial one page poem now composes about half of the pages in Ten-Headed Alien.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
I don’t think I’m overly precious or tortured about writing, and I think that comes from a theatre experience that built up a muscle through a constant series of exposures. There’s something helpful to being able to admit that perfection isn’t the goal, which is not always easy, but because I start most poems with a story or character in mind, I just check in with whether or not I’m still behind the story. If I’m not: compost bin.
When I was working on my first collection, Everyone is CO2, if a poem wasn’t working, my editor Paul Vermeersch would say something like “use this one for spare parts,” which meant maybe a line or image works, but see if it can’t be used somewhere else. I like the image of garage full of rusted spare parts that might come in handy on another day. Some of the poems in Ten-Headed Alien make use of old scrap parts for sure, even going back to the first book. An example of this is that a poem that made Ten-Headed Alien, “Identifying Voice Type by the Sneeze,” was an early cut from Everyone is CO2.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
Canisia Lubrin’s Voodoo Hypothesis took my right sock, and David Ly’s recent Anstruther chapbook Stubble Burn took my left sock. I stand here barefoot, in awe of them both. There are so many great books coming out this spring that I suspect I will soon being saying goodbye to my mittens.
David James Brock is a playwright, poet, and librettist whose plays and operas have been performed in cities across Canada, the US, and the UK. He is the winner of the 2011 Herman Voaden Canadian National Playwriting Award for his play Wet. Brock’s debut poetry collection, Everyone is CO2, was released by Wolsak & Wynn in spring 2014 and his next collection, Ten-Headed Alien, is forthcoming in 2018. He has created text for opera and new music with companies that include Scottish Opera, Noise, Tapestry New Opera, the Canadian Art Song Project, FAWN Chamber Creative, and the Paul Dresher Ensemble. Brock is co-creator of Breath Cycle, a multimedia operatic song cycle developed with cystic fibrosis patients that was nominated for a 2014 Royal Philharmonic Society Award. He lives in Toronto and has taught writing courses at the University of Guelph, University of Victoria, Humber College and Young People’s Theatre.