this interview, with N.W. Lea, was conducted by rob mclennan over email, January-March 2015
N.W. Lea lives and writes in Ottawa. He is the author of three chapbooks, light years (above/ground press, 2006), Actual Girl (The Emergency Response Unit, 2011) and Present! (above/ground press, 2013), as well as the full-length collection, Everything is Movies (Chaudiere Books, 2007). His second collection, Understander, appears this spring, also with Chaudiere Books.
Q: What was the original impulse for Understander?
A: Understander wasn’t exactly blueprinted. I began to notice certain themes and motifs running through the work I was producing and figured there might be a collection brewing. It’s weird because I rarely (if ever) pay attention to theme. I’ve always kind of rejected the concept of an “exploration,” preferring the books that are ostensibly just a random collection of poems, so I found it kind of interesting. Surprising, even.
Q: How does Understander fit with other literary projects you’ve been working on? How do you see your work progressing or developing, especially now, with Understander now existing as a complete, published work?
A: Well, I tend not to work on “projects” as such. Even though there are thematic threads that run through Understander, I don’t consider it a major departure from Everything. My compositional process hasn’t changed in any drastic way—it’s still largely automatic or pseudo-Surrealist in its approach (occasionally I’m successful with collage and cut-ups). However, the poems in this collection seem to be smaller, more compressed, with an emphasis on the verbal units as image/idea-objects as opposed to Everything’s more dynamic expressionism. As the title suggests, there was this urge to “understand” what I was thinking instead of just abstractly expressing my verbal/mental experience. That’s a relatively new thing, I suppose. Not sure if it’s progress, though.
Q: What do you think you’ve learned between the composition of Everything is Movies and the composition of Understander? Is it a progression of a similar set of questions, or have your explorations shifted over the years? Where do you feel as though you’re work is headed?
A: I think my style of writing has matured, in a way. I’ve learned to use space or “spaciousness” more effectively—letting the lines breathe a little more. My influences are less of a crutch, also, I’m finding.
Q: With your second collection, you seem far more open to slightly longer forms, such as the poem (originally published as a chapbook), “Present!” You might be “more concerned with compression and ‘tightness,’” as you say, but what has led to your experimentation with longer forms? Where do you see these explorations heading?
A: To my mind, Present! is the ultimate example of compression in the collection. It was the result of an accumulation of fragments from failed poems or notations. I re-worked them into stand-alone pieces and noticed that they might serve well in a serial piece. Individually, the pieces exemplify this idea of breaking down the poetic effort into almost meme-like objects. I see them as, like, weird little pieces of graffitti.
Q: I’m curious about the idea of constructing new poems out of a variety of parts from unfinished, or “failed” poems. Is this a normal element of your compositional process?
A: Yes, I use that method often. It’s a good way to get into a writing session, get the juices flowing; plus, I’m never lacking in material because most of my poems are failures. I will admit, though, that cut-ups and collage are, in the end, less satisfying than a pure, spontaneous composition.
Q: Soon after Everything is Movies was published, you spoke of a series of influences upon your writing including Dylan Thomas, David O’Meara, Karen Solie, Kevin Connolly, Phyllis Webb, John Ashbery and The Tragically Hip front-man, Gord Downie. How have your influences shifted, if at all, since your first book appeared?
A: I discovered the American poet Michael Burkard a few years ago; I really love his work, especially Entire Dilemma. I really love Jean Valentine and Fanny Howe. Tomas Transtromer. I read Ashbery ritually; he’s meant a lot to me. I’ve never had hang-ups about wearing my influences on my sleeve, but I will say that I’m a little more aware now of the poems that sort of teeter on the edge of imitation. And while I also reject wholesale the idea of “your voice,” which I think is nonsense, I feel this new work is more—shall we say—independent.
Q: What else have you been reading lately that you would recommend? What works can’t you help but return to?
A: Well … I’ve been reading Lydia Davis, Rae Armontrout, Grace Paley, Jim Harrison (his novels and poetry). I absolutely adore the David McFadden Why Are You So Sad? selected. I’ve gotten back into Tom Robbins; I used to read a lot of his stuff in high school. I think the times call for Tom Robbins right now! I’ve also been listening to Paul Auster read his own work on audiobook—I’m addicted; not only is he a true genius, but his voice is so soothing. My go-to books for inspiration (to name only a few) are Ashbery’s Houseboat Days, James Merrill’s The Fire Screen, James Tate’s Selected, Kevin Conolly’s Drift, Michael Burkard’s Entire Dilemma, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens … the list goes on.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. rob is the author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. You can find rob here and here.