canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Kevin Connolly

Part of TDRís Behemoth Gargantuan Canadian Poetry in Review

Interview by RM Vaughan

[November 2008]

In all of poetdom, Dominion of Canada zone, there might be five poets read by people who never otherwise read poetry. There just might.

Don McKay is one, Di Brandt is one, Lorna Crozier is another (how it pains me to type that), Dionne Brand is one, and Kevin Connolly is the best. I donít add Margaret Atwood or Leonard Cohen to the list, because both are celebrities whose reputations have transcended their humble poetic roots, so people buy their books for a variety of reasons apart from their unquestionable poetic merits.

Kevin Connolly is, however, something of a contradiction. He is often called "a poetís poet", a backhanded compliment thatís more of a literary death sentence (would you want to go, for instance, to a movie made by a "directorís director"?). Yet, at the same time, he has a loyal following made up mostly of people who know nothing, and care to know even less, about the rarefied world of pentameters, gazelles and dactyls. I am always amazed and jealous whenever I do a reading on the same bill as Kevin, because afterwards he is always surrounded by sporty young males who want to buy his books. How dare he! That is my porn fantasy!

Kevin Connolly is, of course, also my friend. He has edited both my journalism, such as it was, and my poetry. I make no apologies for asking him to participate in this interview -- and if the following conversation seems like an exercise in nepotism and typical CanLit back-rubbing, I can only say, Like, díuh. But, in my defence, I truly want to find out how he does it, how he creates complex, literary, meticulously crafted poetry that reaches a wide audience while never stooping to cheap or trite devices (see Crozier shudder above).

I suspect that part of Kevinís success comes from the fact that he is no rob mclennan (said with all props to rob!). Kevin will not write three books a year, because, as he readily admits, he canít -- and heís fairly certain the world would not need or want them (a viewpoint I question, with vigour). Whereas rob mclennan triumphs by blitzkrieg (and, again, all props to Rob Ė his muse has a high metabolism), Kevin Connolly triumphs by stealth, plays the guerrilla hiding in the mountains.

In any given decade, youíd be lucky to get two books out of Kevin Connolly. He plans, he waits, he makes notes, and he has the courage to chuck projects he canít make work. Publishing for the sake of having a book on the shelves has never been his goal. Kevin will tell you itís just laziness and indecision, all this careful puttering, but I know itís a strategy.

And, clearly, itís a strategy thatís paid off. Mr. Connollyís last book, the hauntingly disquieted drift, won the Trillium Poetry Award. His new book, the sprawling (and much more light hearted) Revolver, is a kind of Ganong Premium Ten Pound selection of poems, a big crate of double dipped treats packed with marvelous centres Ė creamy, bittersweet gooeys, hard tooth crackers, and many deceptively milky nuggets sneakily laced with brittle, salty, solid gold toffee flecks.

RMV: Why do you take such long breaks between publishing books? I suspect thereís a game plan in there somewhere.

KC: When my first book came out, I was about 33, and I thought it was terribly late to have a first book. Now I think it was about right. Everything I didnít hate ended up in that book, and the rest was garbage. So when the book came out, and Iíd been around literary circles already for a long time, so I knew about poetry Ė what Pound says about dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon Ė but when it came out, it didnít get reviewed for over a year. I thought, you know, Iíd been in the community, I ran a magazine, Iíd at least get a review or two. I got one, in Books in Canada, a year later. It kinda screwed me up a little bit. The difference between real futility and imaginary futility collided there. I thought, nobody really cares. And they still donít. It shook me up a little. It took me a long time to realize that if nobody cares if you publish a book of poetry or not, you might as well publish it. Even then, the second book only happened because Michael Holmes at ECW dragged it out of me. While that book was in the editing process Iíd already started another project, because I didnít want to be left in the position I was in with the first book, with nothing in the cupboard, and since then Iíve maintained that kind of pace.

RMV: Are you a slow writer?

KC: Um, Iím a reviser Ö Iím not anymore. I used to be a binge writer, not very disciplined at all. I used to not write for six or eight months at a time, then sit down for a week and produce ten things, fuss and fret over them, then stop, then have another binge. Now, Iíve pretty much found a way to make it a part of my life on a daily basis. I like writing. Some writers donít actually like writing Ė they like the after part Ė but I actually donít care about the readings and the attention, I like the writing part. Thatís the stuff that gives me a sense of self worth.

RMV: Here we are talking about you, and you seem nervous. This is odd, considering that you spent years as an arts journalist and interviewed hundreds of artists. Didnít you pick up anything from them on how to bluff your way through an interview?

KC: Ha! No, I think I can talk about my work. But I just donít like making a bit to-do about me.

RMV: How did you process winning the Trillium?

KC: Oh, it was very awkward, actually. I was very happy to have won, but I assumed that I won because I had a friend on the jury who was a big supporter of my work, although apparently there was more support than that. But I know how these things work. Um Ö it was nice. It was nice because Iím not a typical lyrical poet, Iím a bit off the wall, and I tend to get very polarized reactions to my work. And it was nice to get some kind of public cred for it, and nice to get ten grand, frankly. Then, afterwards, that book had a little bit more of a life, went on a little bit of a second run. At first I was embarrassed by it, but in the end I think it was a good thing. You know, your friends are happy for you, but thereís also a level of professional jealousy ---

RMV: In your case, I donít think that happened. Honestly, I think people really thought, Itís about fucking time.


KC: Well, I hope thatís the case. I mean, awards are silly, but I always feel that if a friend of mine gets something like that, weíve all sort of won, the art has won.

RMV: Enough about you, letís talk about Revolver. You are the master of the list poem. Now, I know that I like to write list poems because Iím lazy and I like the built in structure. Whatís your reason?

KC: I do like doing them, they are fun for me. And not just list poems, but poems that borrow a shape from another type of writing, like psychological tests or puzzles. I like re-arranging the materials in those pieces, ending up with nonsense with a subtext.

RMV: This is why people canít label you. Youíll have one of these puzzle/list poems next to a straight-on narrative poem, next to a sonnet Ö are you determined not to be pinned down?

KC: I think that might be part of it Ė commitment problems! Ha! Um, but this book, unlike my other books, was consciously designed as a project. Iíve always hated the idea of "voice", all that chat about self and other and sense of place and voice, all that nonsense which I donít understand anyway, all that theory from the 80s, and then Voice. I never believed in any of these truisms, so what I tried to do with Revolver was 45 completely different things with a poem, try to disprove this idea that poetry is just about a single ego expressing itself in the world. Painters donít get tagged like that.

RMV: Oh, no, they do.

KC: Eventually? Yeah? Too bad. I just felt like I didnít want my freedom taken away. I never want that to happen. I donít want to sound like anybody else, and I donít want to repeat myself constantly (but I think you end up repeating yourself anyway). This is a little bit more of a hodgepodge than drift was Ö in my first book there was too much posturing, in my second book there was too much flailing around, and then the third book, whatever its merits or problems are, are mine. And I still like it, while I cringe at some of the stuff in the first two books.

RMV: Welcome to my world.

KC: Yeah, we all do that, but as you get older you get kinder to your younger self. You realize thereís a certain energy in that work that you donít have anymore, and thatís kind of nice to look back on. But the writing of drift was so claustrophobic, because all the poems are really about one thing, that I wanted to do something to break out of it. I didnít want to do drift 2. So I designed this book so that I could write one poem at a time and enjoy writing them.

RMV: Well, subsequently, there are a lot of poems in here that are perfect "magazine poems", and I donít mean that in a derogatory way. What I mean is that they are tidy, miniature worlds that do what you expect a poem in a magazine to do, take you elsewhere, briefly. Yet, you almost never appear in magazines. How come?


KC: I never, never send stuff out. If someone asks me, I give it to them, regardless if its in their e-zine or chapbook or whatever. Itís not that I dislike magazines, Iím just too lazy. It never would occur to me. I used to address envelopes with the intention of sending poems out, but they never made it to the post office. I donít read many magazines. And most of the magazines that publish poetry arenít read by anybody.

RMV: People read The Walrus.

KC: The Walrus took a poem from me, and they still havenít published it! Ha! Ha!



Stacey May Fowles latest book is Fear of Fighting (Invisible, 2008)

RM Vaughanís latest book is Troubled (Coach House, 2008)




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