Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Bob Mackenzie

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.

book cover - silver bow publishing

Bob MacKenzie’s

poetry has appeared in almost 400 journals across North America and as far away as Australia and India in publications including Literary Review of Canada, Dalhousie Review, Windsor Review, and Ball State University Forum.  He’s published thirteen volumes of poetry and prose-fiction and his work’s been in numerous anthologies.  Bob’s received numerous local and international awards for his writing as well as an Ontario Arts Council grant for literature, Canada Council Grant for performance, and Fellowship to attend the 2017 Summer Literary Seminars in Tbilisi, Georgia.  With the ensemble Poem de Terre, for eighteen years Bob’s poetry has been spoken and sung live with original music and the group has released six albums.Here are some links.

His main Facebook page (poet)
https://www.facebook.com/canadian.poet

His other Facebook Page (poet and novelist)
https://www.facebook.com/Bob.MacKenzie.Author

Facebook Page for his newest book
https://www.facebook.com/still.in.wind

Publisher’s page for his new book
http://www.silverbowpublishing.com/somewhere-still-in-wind.html

His author page featuring all of his books available at Amazon.com
https://www.amazon.com/Bob-MacKenzie/e/B007GP9AFS

The Interview

1.   When and why did you start writing poetry?

For me, this is really two questions.  “Why” I started writing poetry occurs long before “when” I started.  In another very real way, these two concepts are so closely interwoven that they begin to appear as one.  Although I didn’t realize it until after I had grown up and left home, I was raised in what now might be called an “enriched environment” culturally.  In the unlikely ambiance of small farming towns in rural 1950s Alberta, my parents were somewhat of an anomaly.  My father was a professional photographer and musician who had eclectic and wide-ranging interests in almost every field, especially a quirky interest in poetry and humour.  My mother was a photo technician, photo-colourist, and painter who was especially interested in the lyrics of the songs she heard on the radio. Our parents shared their world with my sister and me.  From our artist parents, we learned not only to appreciate images and words and music, but how to make them ourselves.  This was the wonderful gift of artistic expression.  We sat with our mother as she imbued black and white photographs with realistic colour, and watched as she painted giant murals on the walls of our photo studio while showing us how to do it ourselves.  We modelled for our father in the studio and watched in the darkroom under ever-changing lights as he magically made images appear on blank paper.   By the age of five, we had cameras in our hands and at eight I made my first short film.  And there were always words: poems, songs, and stories filling our lives with an unlimited array of worlds beyond our small prairie town.  We were encouraged to know and love the arts and to possibly become artists like our parents.

From the time I learned to write, I would write the occasional short verse for a birthday or other special occasion and sometimes just because I found a subject interesting.  I didn’t write many poems and for many years didn’t take my poetry seriously except as one of several modes of expression.   When I started high school, I also started to write more poetry, often in class or in the hallways of my school but also at home.  Through high school, this was only an avocation, something to occupy my mind and fill in time.  I left high school in 1965 set upon becoming a writer in general and more specifically a poet.  I hung around the cafés in Calgary that held regular readings and open stage events where I could listen or sign up to read.  And I wrote! Over the summer of 1966 while still spending time at the cafés, I created two major poetry readings at the Allied Arts Centre, devoured books of poetry and criticism, and self published a book of my own poetry.  At eighteen years of age, I had begun the next stage of my poetic journey.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Now this is an interesting question, because I don’t have the resources to fully understand it.  I suppose my short answer is that I have never been aware of a “dominating presence” of any poets, older or younger, traditional or contemporary. What I was and am aware of is the overt or more subtle efforts of certain groups or schools of poetry to impose their philosophies and styles upon all poets.  While I can think of several examples, what comes immediately to mind is a whole cartel of Canadian poets, mostly from the west coast and, though some were a bit older, mostly less than a decade older than me, who held great sway when I was a young poet.  Perhaps it was their arrogance that moved me to assume my position as an outlier in Canadian poetry.  For the most part, these poets turned their collective back on our rich history of Canadian poetry and drew almost exclusively on relatively recent American influences and styles, including but not exclusively the Black Mountain school of poets. I was quite willing to consider various possible poetics from around the world and across time, but I was resistant to have the ideals of a lone school of poetics rooted in a single decade of the 20th Century imposed upon me.  I sought out a diverse group of poets and styles and studied not only the poets and their poems but substantial critical literature discussing their work.  Unlike these west coast poets who were schooled at one of two universities by professors who, I believe, held to certain narrow precepts, I determined that I would educate myself in the art and craft of poetry.  If there in fact had been any sort of “dominating presence” of certain poets, then I choose not to recognize it.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

The availability of time has a great influence on when  and what I write.  An ideal I hardly ever achieve anymore is to get up early and write for anywhere from three to five hours, stopping at noon or one, then take the afternoon off to complete chores or simply relax on my own or with friends, then write in the evening for another three or four hours.  I was able to be quite productive following that regime.  In recent years, Life seems always to get in the way.  Things come up which need my urgent attention and take me away from my intended writing time.  My routine becomes much more variable, as does what I write.

I am unable to write long poems or novel-length prose fiction unless I can find a space of at least two hours.  I need that amount of time to warm to my subject and make decent progress.  Because I can’t write long pieces in random ten or fifteen minute bits, on days like this I write short poems or short-form fiction.  This practice keeps my hand in and my mind fresh for those rare times when I can find the necessary hours to write longer pieces.  This is not so much a routine as a scatter-gun approach in which my available time for writing is catch as catch can.

4. What motivates you to write?

My base motivation is to communicate, rather than specifically to create or to write.  While I may put on a brave show, I’m actually uncomfortable with speaking.  It’s the spontaneity of speech, the way words seem to just fall from one’s mouth often before they’re ready or have been fully thought out.  I prefer the potential accuracy and precision of words in print or a prepared script for speech.  By my nature, I am a writer.  As a creator, I am far more than simply a writer.  I long ago began to see myself as a multi-disciplinary artist.

Whatever I may write, I write to be spoken out loud.  I set my writing in the realms of spoken word, visual art, live theatre and film, and others of the arts.  While writing may always be my primary oeuvre, it is always intended to be at the centre of a collaboration with one or more other arts disciplines.  Here is my true motivation: the completed organic work of art which is able to speak more eloquently for me than I alone am able.

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

I’ll assume your question intends to address what I’d been reading prior to 1965, when I embarked on my full time vocation  as a writer.  I was a very eclectic reader of both fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry and I believe much of what I was reading continues to influence my thinking to this day, if not always what or how I write.  For the most part, I have admired the writing, though not usually the author.  The rule of grammar says that the writer, having written and published the work is to be referred to  in the past tense but the work itself exists always in  the present.    It’s in that context that  I’ll answer your question.

When I was quite young, my parents gave me a copy of Charles Kingsley’s book “The Water Babies” from the previous century.  I still enjoy this story with pleasure and still have the book.  I was and am impressed by the socially conscious nature of this story.  I’m certain that this early exposure has a lot to do with my own feeling that one’s writing must wherever possible address the social ills of the day.  In my younger years I was also an admirer of the writing of Theodor Geisel, usually known as  Dr. Seuss, who’s work often addressed social issues in a quiet, clear and assured way.  It’s also from reading Dr. Seuss that I got my first inkling that excellent writing can tell important stories while also being quite poetic.  So Theodor Geisel , Charles Kingsley, and other writers I read were early influences and remain among my influences to this day.

I was only six when my parents bought the Encyclopaedia Britannica plus a subscription to annual updates.  This became part of my regular reading fare.  Reading articles in Britannica, written for the most part by erudite scholars, taught me a lot about the vast world beyond our small prairie town and instilled in  me a great respect for fine writing. Though I don’t know any of their names, these writers have been a great influence to how I make art and the ways I approach life in general. I can’t actually remember the names of other authors I had encountered between those early years and my twenties. 

I revelled in The New Yorker’s theatre critic Pauline Kael.  I was blown away by the story telling skill of Jules Verne, especially stories such as “Michael Strogoff” though I only read them in translation.  I learned a lot about the structure of stories by reading the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs who not only wrote the Tarzan novels but also some serious science fiction.  Rudyard Kipling  taught me different lessons about how to write a riveting story as well as how to keep poetry simple yet meaningful.  James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” impressed me with how realistic he could make a mountain valley imbued with fantasy and magic.  Later, thanks to a schoolmate handing me a copy of “Spicebox of Earth” Leonard Cohen opened the door through which I stepped to become a poet.  Still later, I discovered Elmore Leonard, who showed me a great deal about crime writing, and James Branch Cabell, who bought me back to the magic one can create while telling a story.  And there were songwriters who had and still have a great influence on my writing,  but perhaps that’s another story.

I’d have a hard time choosing a single writer who has had a lasting influence on my writing.  There are all the writers I’ve just mentioned and many more, and I’ve taken away something precious from every one of their stories, poems, and songs.   These authors fill my office and watch over my shoulder, sometimes whispering encouragement and advice in my ear.

6. Whom of today’s writers do you most admire and why?

Well this is harder to answer than it may seem at first glance.  My greatest influences and writers I admire the most are long dead, some for years and some for centuries.  I suspect your question refers to living contemporary poets.  This narrows the field a great deal. There’s the Canadian poet John Ambury, who has been called one of the best poets in Ontario.  His poetry is polished and precise, concise yet down to earth and conversational.  Yes, I admire the man and I admire the poet.  I’m not sure that “admire” is the best word, but I enjoy the friendship and talent of Steven Heighton, an award winning novelist and poet who lives in my town and whom I’ve known for almost a quarter century.   More than forty years ago, I performed immediately before bill bissett at an arts festival in Windsor.  In Kingston on April 1, 2017, bill and I again performed on the same stage.  As much as I’m impressed with bill’s writing, I’m blown away when I see him perform his poetry. Also among my influences are well-written lyrics for popular songs.  I’m certainly influenced by the powerful lyrics of Jim Steinman, an American composer, lyricist, and Grammy Award-winning record producer.  His lyrics are pure theatre, dramatic poetry that grabs the listener (or reader) and holds on tight.  While I may succeed sometimes, I would love to have  all of my poems and songs rise to those heights.  Steinman is only one of a number of brilliant songwriters I admire and who influence me while I’m writing my own poems and songs. There are many poets, lyricists, and performers I admire. It’s difficult to come up with those among them that I admire most  because I admire many of them, though perhaps each for different reasons.  To admire one or the other of these brilliant artists is a concept I had never considered until your question.  What I admire is someone who tells his or her story well, whether written or in performance.  If an artist excels in the craft and art of poetry or in any discipline, then that is what I admire most.

7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I think this is a matter of control.  Often when I speak, I feel that the words have just fallen out of my mouth before I’ve had a chance to make sure they’re actually the words I wanted to say.  These words are instantly exposed to anyone who may be listening.  When I write, nobody sees my words until I decide to show them.  There’s a sort of personal power in that.

I’m always surprised that people who have no problem speaking their mind fear writing or recording what they have to say.  When you write a script or record a speech, you always have the ability to revise or correct what you want to communicate.  When you speak extemporaneously, those words are out there before you can stop them.  If they turn out not to be what you wanted to say, there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a large reason I write.  Another is that, perhaps because of my family background, I just feel very natural writing.  I’m sure there are other reasons too, but these two are the important reasons.

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

The easy answer is. “Just write.”  Of course there’s much more to it than that, and I’d try to pass on some of what I know now.  Anyone who keeps a journal, writes long informative letters to friends and family, or keeps a secret stash of personal poems is by definition a writer.  To the aspiring professional writer–whether journalistic, commercial, or literary–I would say he or she should read a lot, study those who are considered the finest writers whether or not you agree with their ideas, get into a good writer’s workshop, take a writing program at college or university (though this is not really necessary), be critical of your own writing and consider carefully suggestions from your editor or writer friends even if with a grain of salt, and, yes, just write.  Only by writing and taking the task seriously will you become a better writer.

9. Tell me about a writing project you’re involved in at the moment.

Your timing makes this an interesting question.  At the moment I’m between projects, or at least I’m not involved in any particular project.  Yet this interval is far from empty and is itself a project of sorts.  What I face is a diversity of options, different directions I could possibly take my editing practice, my prose-fiction writing, and of course my mainstay, poetry.  There are a number of projects I’ve conceived that, while in various stages of development, aren’t ready yet to be put into practice, and there are opportunities on the horizon that I’d like to explore.  This is a time of planning and mapping what my creative journey shall be as I move forward.  In many ways, this process is even more exciting than embarking on any specific new project.  Meanwhile, I continue to submit poems and small collections, while I take advantage of some available time to write.

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