canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Ken Babstock

Ken Babstock was born in Newfoundland and now lives in Toronto where he is the poetry editor at House of Anansi. He is the author of three books of poetry, Mean, Days into Flatspin and Airstream Land Yacht. Prizes and awards have followed Babstock’s work from the outset. Mean won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize and the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Days into Flatspin won the K.M. Hunter Award and Airstream Land Yacht was recently nominated for a Governor General’s Award. Babstock has been lauded for his poetry that counters the gritty physicality of the world with a philosophical curiosity that is often infused with playfulness and humour.

Interview by Elliot Robins. Spring 2007.


Elliot Robins: Is the Canadian publishing industry still Toronto centric, or has the center expanded? Westerners tend to get uptight about Toronto’s prominence, both in the publishing industry and in general.

Ken Babstock: I’d be lying if I didn’t say there is a congestion of publishers in Toronto, especially the big ones. There are small presses also. Toronto is a big city. The publishers are there because the media is there and the media is there because the publishers are there. That all makes sense. It’s the same in any place – Paris, New York, wherever.

ER: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

KB: I think it’s a good thing insofar as anyone who chooses to be in Toronto, that’s there for them. Everyone needs a cultural center, even if it’s just imaginary or illusory. It’s also good for those who choose not to be there because they are consciously putting themselves in opposition to the cultural monolith. I know what that’s like. I grew up in a small town thinking the center would never accept me. I grew up with this identity of thinking, ‘I’ll never be accepted there, I’ll just always do things on the fringes.’ So being in Toronto is a complete turnaround. Look, it’s not as exclusive as it seems from the outside. That’s been enlightening. I understand how the dialogue works if you choose to position yourself outside of Toronto in a small place or look to Vancouver and the west coast or Montreal or the States then you’re choosing to do that and that’s cool – that’s where the good shit happens. That’s why so much good art is coming out of the suburbs. The center is too wrapped up in looking at itself in the mirror and the kids in the suburbs just feel left out of everything. They’re the ones that make the great records, art and writing. It’s all about the illusion of the center of power and whether or not you choose to go in there and burrow around and see what’s there, or be outside and put yourself in opposition or dialogue with it.

ER: That makes me think about your poem The World’s Hub. In it you explore the tension between being repulsed by the suburbs and embracing them:

"…November like a tin sheet
blown up from the lake over Mimico, with
garbage and refuse I’d build
a hilltop to the moon over Mississauga-
chip bags, flattened foil wrappers, shopping
carts growing a fur of frost…"

KB: This is a great story. I grew up in small towns and then moved into city centers – Montreal, Vancouver, Dublin and Toronto. The suburbs were just nothing to me. I didn’t understand them, I just considered them ugly. Then I fell in love with my girlfriend Laura, who was born and raised in northwestern Toronto – Rexdale – one of those sprawling suburbs that I knew nothing about. She opened up a whole world. It actually has benefits.

ER: What are the benefits?

KB: People talk about multiculturalism. That’s happening at the edges of the city, way more than in towns and at the city center. The center still has issues with racism and people are kind of screwed up about it. In small towns, they’re generally still very white. Growing up, I was aware of what racism was but it was all bookish and through music. I had no experience in living with people from different backgrounds. Whereas Laura, from the time she was born, lived with everybody. None of those hang-ups are there. She’s purely multi-cultural and she was made that way from growing up in the suburbs. The suburbs were all about learning that there’s no place on earth that doesn’t have its own intrinsic value. It’s always about what you’ve looked over.

ER: You mentioned that you were solipsistic in your youth. How did you get past that?

KB: It can always feel like you’re doing your best to know the world but it’s always the world that kicks your head open – with lover being the big one. You realize, ‘OK, everything outside of myself is more important than myself.’

ER: What advice do you give writers at workshops?

KB: If they can put themselves off to the side for a minute, on pause, they can see that language itself is its own generator of meaning, of significance and importance. If they’re worried about saying something profound, they shouldn’t look for it inside themselves – let language do it. Language is like a big mountain and the author is this small thing crawling around on the outside.







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