Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Grant Guy

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Grant Guy

Grant Guy is a Canadian poet, writer and playwright. He has over one hundred poems and short stories published internationally. He has five books published: Open Fragments, On the Bright Side of Down, Blues for a Mustang, The Life and Lies of Calamity Jane and Bus Stop Bus Stop. He was the 2004 recipient of the MAC’s 2004 Award of Distinction and the 2017 recipient of the WAC Making A Difference Award.

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

I have only taken up poetry recently as my prime activity. In the past it was a sidebar, an avocation. Before that I was as a playwright, director, designer and puppeteer. While I have written poetry in previous years, published now and then, theatre dominated. I identified myself as a theatremaker. But it was through my work in theatre that brought me to poetry and prose. It was at ADHERE + DENY I began to think of myself as a playwright. I wrote, collaged and adapted the several scripts for the company. Prior to
A+D I wrote scripts for The Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba, Video Pool and the Manitoba Association of Playwrights, The Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and elsewhere, but I did not refer to myself as a playwright. I began to enjoy writing more than all other aspects of theatrical creation. Poetry and short stories soon followed. Theatre is now a sidebar.

So it was not so much as to what was the inspiration as it was a progression.

However, still saying all that, my earliest interest in poetry began in my junior high school days. Until then, writing was an alien concept for me as a Canadian. In schools we were taught the poetry of English and American poets. However, it was the discovery of Bliss Carmen that changed all that for me. A Canadian that wrote poetry?  Wow! That led to A. M. Klein, Frank Scott, Stephen Leacock and, of course, Leonard Cohen. My writing ambition suffered a set back in my high school years when I was expelled from school because of a story I wrote for my English class. The piece was a kind of derivative merger of Dylan Thomas and Richard Farina. The high school thought I was a drug fiend. Wounded I never looked as writing as an option until the 1980s. In the 1980s I discovered Milton Acorn, Pat Lowther and Tom Wayman. In the 1980s my first poem was published. The 1980s not only my renewed interest in poetry but also gave me the confidence to write for theatre.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

It was not so much who introduced me to theatre. It was what. In grade 5 or 6 my class went on a field trip to see a Van Gogh exhibit. It was at the exhibition I decided I wanted to be an artist. I went to the library and borrowed what I could find on Van Gogh, including his letters to his brother. His writing had a greater impact on me. But the lack of Canadian content in our education system way back when was still a determent. It was the hippie years when I decided that being an artist was possible. Cohen burst onto the scene. With him a literary history I was blind to, writers like Layton, Birney and others. But it was through circumstances and friendship, and wanting to shortcut my education, I found theatre design to be the immediate recourse to the arts. I have a good sense of space and volume, but because I am a text based person theatre was my earliest path.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I have many friends who are visual artists. In the visual artists one is more inclined to kill their fathers, something suggested by Mark Rothko. But I was a theatre artist. Theatre has a boatload of historical baggage. I never wanted to kill my fathers. Or bulldoze the past. For me my elders and history are material for work. That does not suggest I ignored the their humanity or the humanity of the work. I saw my elders as people and as abstraction. Theatre introduced me to Brecht and Mayakovsky, They in turn led me to Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Vallejo, Whitman and Lorca. They jockey back and forth in prominence but remain vital in my process and work. The influence may not be obvious but sometimes when someone can do things I cannot I have admiration for them. The initial poetic influences have been joined by other older poets and more contemporary poets. I would say Adrian Mitchell, the British poet, is a primary influence for me currently: to take poetry sincerely but less seriously. Bukowski is an influence for the same reason.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

It varies on the project. For my poetry I am open to inspiration. I take a pen and notebook with me everywhere. I write down observations, thoughts and phrases as they pop up in my life. Later I will transpose those ideas into poems, but no regimented time is set up. No getting up at 5 a. m. or something like that. An idea for a short story will pop up in a similar way as the inspiration for a poem. But I will set up time in the evenings to work on the short story. Short stories are painful for me. For playwriting, when working on a new script, I will establish a regimented work time. Playwriting is like going to the office. I also find visiting a coffee bar a good place to write. I try to visit one everyday. The hustle and bustle is energetic. I am a bit of a flâneur.

5. What motivates you to write?

An obsession I cannot shake. Currently it is a theatre piece on the “Beat Generation”. Otherwise, I keep myself open and alert to the world around me. My roots are in theatre. Theatre is a story telling format of the human drama. I remain committed to our human drama, but it is not the epic drama that interests me but in the snippets of human drama. I am keenly alert to the absurdities of our human drama. Earlier on I got entangled in metaphors and symbolism. I realized that is not me. I am the narrative and the comic turn, the vaudevillian turn. Many poets thrive on the metaphor and I admire them. I cannot honestly do it any more for myself.

Others things that motivate me might be a lyric from a song. I am working on a piece about funerals, how we need to assure our immortality by stamping our names on hospital research centres or on sports arenas. The spark came from a song by Lucinda Williams warning us about expensive funerals.

Another inspiration is travelling. I am like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable. As soon as I have a bit of money in my pocket I am off. In travel you meet people you will never see again. I meet people who are completely different from me. People share their personal narratives more easily if they know they will never see you again. I call train travel a rolling confessional. Travel is a big inspiration for the snippets of our human drama.

Yes, mostly it is life.

6. What is your work ethic?

I have a horrible work ethic. Often I would rather flâneur or anything to get down to work, but once I get started it is hard to stop. I have been known to go for days with little sleep while working on a play.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

While I respect and admire writers I read when I was young their influence has weakened over time such as Dylan Thomas, with maybe the exception of Brecht. It is the poets I discovered in my thirties that have impacted me more and to a degree they still do today. Tom Wayman’s narrative style I found to be refreshing. I still come back to him. Al Purdy I discovered in the 1970s and still admire him today. Someone I dismissed when I was young was Charles Bukowski. Today his unadorned poetics are very significant on me. I mentioned Adrian Mitchell earlier. I was first introduced to him as a playwright. He wrote the English translation of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. It was in the 1990s when I read him as a poet. He wrote, “People don’t care about poetry because poetry doesn’t care about people.” He wrote the way he talked, like Bukowski, and I was assured by that. He gave me confidence to write how I talk.

Saying all that I came across in the 1970s and 80s poets like Levertov, Merton and Lowther. Still read them and admire them.

A poet I discovered in my hippie years was Kenneth Patchen. I do not, cannot and will not write like Patchen, he sustains me.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Hard question. In Winnipeg there is the poet Dennis Cooley. He has the eye and curiosity of a child. I admire this in him. In spite of my Groucho Marxism, I tend to be a bit of a skeptic. Also in Winnipeg is the poet Duncan Mercredi. In his poetry there is an anger and rage, but also hope. Another Winnipeg poet is Ariel Gordon. She has a great sense of humor. The same goes for the Pennsylvania poet Barry Gross. I like the work of the poet Jennifer Still. There exists delicate stitching together of text and form. Careful and beautiful. I am more like a sledgehammer. She is another example of a poet who can do something I cannot. I like the poet Red Shuttleworth. I write often Western poetry (not cowboy poetry). Shuttleworth, not solely a Western poet, has written excellent Western poems.

9.  Why do you write?

A chemical disorder? Back in the 1990s I was talking to the theatremaker Ping Chong. We were discussing how we both wanted to write that Broadway hit and make a lot of money, but as soon as we put pen to paper things go dinky. Ping said, “Grant, it’s called a chemical disorder.”

I cannot do anything else well but make art. It is in me and it comes out.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Here I do not have any useful advice. You must have it in you. Don’t let anyone tell you whether you have it in you of not. Only you know, and you have to be your most critical councilor. If it is in you you will do it. If it is in you you will not let the rejection slips get you down (and you will get rejection slips even when you have had over a hundred poems published). And it may take time to be published. I have a friend who had seven novels and four screenplays behind him before he had his first novel published. Use the rejections as motivation for editing. If you become easily discouraged and defeated by the early rejections maybe that is the sign you do not have what it takes. Art is work.

Also, maybe poetry is not your best option. That does not mean you are not a good writer. Maybe your form is the short story, maybe it is travelogues (I like very much subjective travel histories) or journalism. Look at Mailer. His best work, in my opinion, is his essay writing.

Be your harshest critic. And do not be afraid of editing.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

The big writing project at the moment is my theatre piece on the Beats. I am fascinated in the admiration they have mustered, even today. Primarily, at the beginning of the project I was interested in how the four Beat writers became a Generation. Gary Snyder commented three or four people “a generation do not make”. I was interested in how the four prime Beat writers ended being clichés. I contend they believed their own press releases. I was interested in how subsequent writers like di Prima, Kyger, Snyder in time ascended over them. The German poet Heine was referred to as an unfrocked Romantic. Like Byron, who I also consider unfrocked, was able to transcend over his Romantic colleagues because he was because he precisely unfrocked. I am interested in the participation of the women “Beat” era.

Another project I am working on is about Billy the Kid. I am not rehashing old ground on the outlaw but exploring aspects of his narrative never discussed.

I have written Western short stories and poems. I was fascinated by the genre and the history of the Old West in Canada and the United States: how we as a people subdued the West shaped us as people today – our relationship with the land and the indigenous peoples, our psyche, and how our conservative and radical politics in North American merged out of the old West (Eastern Canada and the United States owes a debt to Europe while the West is more libertarian or anarchist). Feminism in North America got its strength from the women of the Old West.

And the Old West is made up of characters and myth. Myth is plastic. We shape it anyway we want. And we did it with the Old West. But in my writing I am avoiding the old interpretations. I am trying to deconstruct and subvert the history and narratives of the Old west as the spaghetti Westerns and Sam Peckinpah did.

Other than that I am constantly writing about the discovered snippets of our human drama.

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