“What a Poem Can Do”: An Interview with Matthew Tierney and Mathew Henderson

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. You might know him as Ted. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. His non-fiction has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, Pucklife.com, Hockeyinsociey.com and The Toronto Review of Books. His poems have appeared in The Toronto Quarterly, The Puritan and Contemporary Verse 2. He is currently working on a poetry manuscript entitled For the Ghost of Muley Graves and looking for a home for another, Still. He teaches and writes in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read more at emartinnolan.wordpress.com.


Mathew Henderson is the author of The Lease (Coach House Books, Fall 2012) and is a recent graduate of the University of Guelph’s MFA program. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives in Toronto, writes about the prairies and teaches at Humber College.

Matthew Tierney is the author of three collections of poetry, including The Hayflick Limit (Coach House Books), which was shortlisted for a Trillium Book Award. His most recent book, titled Probably Inevitable, considers the science and philosophy of time. It was released in Fall 2012 from Coach House Books. He lives in Toronto.

This interview took place on December 20th at The Free Times Café on College Street in Toronto. It was edited for clarity, and a few follow-up questions and answers were added after the fact.


EMN: Let’s begin with readings. You two went on a little tour to promote your new books. Tell me about that.

MT: We started in Halifax, then Moncton and Fredericton. It was three readings in four days—a compressed schedule. It was a good way to get to know someone.

EMN: How many readings have you done outside of that?

MT: I’ve been fairly busy.

MH: I’ve been as busy as I really want to be.

MT: He’s not a big fan, but he’s learning to love the readings.

EMN: What is it you don’t dig about readings?

MH: It’s just that I don’t love the centre-of-attention part of it.

MT: He doesn’t like the sound of his own voice.

MH: I hate the sound of my own voice. I tried to listen to the audio recordings [on the Coach House web site] and it hurt my heart.

EMN: I found those recordings interesting in terms of the voice of your poems, but I’ll get back to that.

When you’re on tour, supporting your book, doing a lot of readings from the same book, does your approach to reading those poems change through that process?

MT: I take readings very seriously. I practice beforehand and I only read poems that I’ve practiced. Each reading is another attempt to fail in trying to get it right. I hear it a certain way in my head and I do my best to get that across, but each reading has moments when it doesn’t go as well. That’s why I tend to read the same poems; I never seem to get them sounding the way they do in my head.

EMN: What kinds of things get switched up?

MT: My wife is an actress, and she often tells me about energy levels, about keeping my energy up. When you read a poem and you’re not visualizing or imagining what you’re reading, you’re kind of on auto-pilot—and you hear this all the time in readings, right? When that happens, you get the sense [the poet] isn’t understanding the meaning of what they’re putting across. Obviously, they’ve written the poem and know what it’s about, but they can also turn it on and off. So it’s just a question of being present when I’m reading the poem and not turning off my brain and letting my mouth do the work.

EMN: Why do you think it is that some poets don’t practice?

MT: I find it incredible.

MH: It is really strange, but I also find that it’s very tempting—as someone who doesn’t love being up there and doing that—to just check out, to let my mind go here let my mouth use these words.

EMN: To just survive it?

MH: Yes. But it doesn’t take very long to see the difference. I like going to readings, and you can hear it, exactly like Matthew said, if you’re just reading the poem and you’re not making an effort to experience the thing you’re doing; it falls completely flat. And you can see the difference in the people when you’re reading if you’re engaged with the words you’re reading. But it’s tempting to check out.

MT: And not everyone is comfortable in front of a microphone and a room full of people. But it’s built into the business of poetry. This is how you sell books: word of mouth. That’s what we do. Still, some people try to bow out of readings, or try to do as few as possible, but you have to do at least a couple. You can see some people struggling with that.

MH: Ultimately, if you’re writing something and you want people to be exposed to it—and I assume anyone writing does (even book sales aside)—it’s the best chance for people to hear what you’ve written. It’s a great opportunity.

EMN [to MH]: So in the course of reading from The Lease, did you note any adjustments you made in how you read?

MH: A few things. I’ve become more comfortable, just from practice. Other things: you can start to tailor poems based on the way people have reacted. You learn when to have a pause, when not to have a pause, and it changes the way you think of certain poems. Matthew [Tierney] probably put more thought into what poems to read, just from experience, while I was figuring that out as I went.

MT: And that changes with the room, too. The room we did in Moncton was really loud and raucous—the night was half-music and half-poetry reading, and people were drinking—so you read those ones that are little bit more … well, humour goes over well in those types of situations. Whereas, if you get into a quiet library setting, people aren’t as comfortable laughing out loud, but you get some really earnest listeners, so that’s when you want to read the quiet pieces.

MH: And conversation goes over well too, right? The moments between [poems]; that’s another thing I’ve gotten better with. It’s good being honest, like “I’m really awkward right now, but it’s fine.”

EMN: That’s a bit of an art form in itself. You don’t want to just go right into the poem, but you don’t want to do too much. I’m thinking of David McGimpsey, who does it well.

MT: Well, he’s a stand-up comic, so it’s not fair to compare him to anyone. But it is true that you have to imagine hearing this poem for the first time, because [when listening] you don’t have a chance to go back and pick up something you missed. I always try to think of what they need to know, and can hang their hat on, in case they get lost—because everybody zones out sometimes and it’s hard to keep your mind that focused.

EMN: You brought up stand-up comedy. Do you find any affinity between the reading and stand-up? In both cases, you’re up there alone, just speaking.

MT: I think there’s a danger to trying to be the stand-up comic because those are the poems you get the most reaction from. A laugh is the most rewarding thing you can get because it’s immediate feedback, and you hunger for that after a while. Other than that, you have to carry the whole energy of the performance yourself, like a stand-up comic, whereas in theatre—I spent some time acting—it’s so much easier when there’s another person on stage. The energy immediately goes up, you’re not the focus anymore, and the dialogue can carry you. But monologues are tough.

EMN [to MT]: This reminds me of your readings I’ve heard lately: at Pivot and at The Puritan’s Black Thursday event, which was different.

MT: How so?

EMN: More energy, more boisterous; you were following a lot of hilarity. At Pivot, it wasn’t a library crowd—

MT: No, but people were listening. It was a smaller crowd, and sometimes it’s just the size of the crowd. I mean, if you’re reading to two or three people—

MH: Which sometimes happens. The other night I did a reading at a much smaller place, and you know I was talking to the guy making coffee in the corner, and there’s a guy right there ordering a coffee.

MT: Sometimes it’s the level of sobriety, too. I had had a few [at Black Thursday], in which case you’re a little looser.

EMN: On a related topic, I’ve read it argued that poetry has become a written form. Is poetry a primarily spoken or written medium? Is there a difference?

MT: Well, the lyric poem is sound and sense, that’s what it is. When you’re reading or writing a lyric poem, even if it’s not spoken, you’re hearing an internal voice; you’re picking up on sounds as they flow through the poem. If you give voice to that poem by reading it aloud, that’s just one instance of the poem, one example of how this poem can be read. But the blueprint is there for anyone to read it aloud, and to still hear a voice.

EMN [to MH]: Your poems read as speeches, like they ask to be read aloud, so what’s the balance for you?

MH: I don’t know anyone who loves poetry and doesn’t read it out loud. When you’re sitting with a book you love, you pause and you read a few of those poems out loud. So both [the poem as written medium and spoken medium] exist, but that being said, I would never want to get an audio book of poems without access to the written words.

I don’t think I need to make a distinction between the two, but for me it is an incredibly oral [thing]. When I’m writing, it’s a coming together of speaking and writing: writing some, speaking them out, trying to figure out what comes next.

MT [to MH]: In your book, too, you adopt voices, characters, personalities. You don’t do it all the time, but there are those that stand out, that are speech—

MH: There are so many times [when], writing, I think that I’m getting somewhere. Then I read it out loud and realize, “you’re so full of shit, this is you imitating someone, it’s not even remotely how this person sounds, or how this thing should be.” And that’s an ear thing.

EMN: That brings us back to your [recorded poems]. When I listened to them, I heard a distinct accent, a familiarity with the voice of the poem. The voice on the page was already strong, but the recording added texture.

MH: I would hope that’s there. That discomfort with my voice is just insecurity. If I’m writing something, and I want a friend to give feedback, I’ll give them the paper, but I’ll read it for them too.

EMN [to MT]: With yours, hearing them read aloud reveals more, like interior rhymes I didn’t hear before. How much do you play to that oral quality? Do you have to read it back before you can hear those aural qualities?

MT: There’s something I picked up from Jeremy Dodds. I had done it before, casually: reading a poem out[loud] while I was writing. But he actually records it and hears himself, and that became a part of the process for me for this book, to record it on the laptop: to close my eyes and hear where the energy sags and to see where the opportunities are for taking the poem in different directions. So when I read it [out loud], I guess that’s when I start duplicating the writing process [by listening back to the recording]. When you write, it’s almost like you’re juggling both the sound and the sense. You’re tying to keep the sound in your head, like the consonance and assonance you’ve [captured] so far, and you’re trying to keep that in the air while trying to further the meaning of the poem. Hopefully, at the end when you have the poem, it traces a line for you that you’re maybe not even aware of, just because you kept both balls in play.

EMN: Given that patterning you’ve described there, what kind of attention do you both pay to prosody? Do you scan your poems?

MH: Sometimes. It will depend. For a while I was scanning too much and it was eliminating some of the voice. I have a real problem with order sometime, and I want everything lined up. The poems in this book should not necessarily line up in a neat order, particularly the ones in somebody else’s voice, because that’s not how it goes. But yeah, I would break them down, and just like when you’re [MT] listening to them, when I’m breaking them down it can show me those gaps and opportunities, places where I haven’t done what I should’ve been doing but can’t notice. It can show you the scars of editing.

EMN: How much of that is purposely creating rhythm and how much of it is finding the rhythm that was already there?

MT: [laughing] That’s the million-dollar question: Does form come before sense? They find each other. This is something I ask other poets: when you’re first writing the poem, how do you find the form for what you’re trying to say. There’s that window of opportunity before it solidifies—

MH: And then your path is set.

MT: And we’ve all had that experience with a poem that isn’t working and we try to shove it into some form, like “maybe this will work as couplets,” and you just can’t do it. There’s a point of no return in each poem, where the form gets harder and harder to alter.

MH: There’s a great Robert Hass article on that [“One Body: Some Notes of Form”]. It was after reading that that I started to really, really break things down. Now I think every choice limits the next choice. Every step that you take, every word that you choose, will determine slightly more what the next word needs to be or must be. The big question—what comes first?—I don’t know. For me, it’s more about going back and drawing out, emphasizing the things that are there, rather than beginning with a notion of what things should be.

MT: Dean Young once said the form is a sort of advanced criticism of the poem. It draws limits on what’s acceptable. So the quicker you get to the form, the quicker you take away those wonderful moments when something unexpected happens. At the same time, you can’t write completely without any scaffolding for the lines. It’s a constant struggle.

EMN [to MH]: What ends up being the controlling mechanism, then? Is it starting, seeing what comes out and asking, “What is this trying to be?” With your stuff, you say you break it down, but it also has to be off-the-cuff.

MT: It has to seem like it comes off the cuff.

EMN: Right, so do you [MH] think that you edited some of that out in your quest for order?

MH: Yeah. There’s this moment when you say, “maybe I should try this?” Inevitably, I will try to take everything I do too far, and I have to pull myself back. There were a few points where I noticed: “you’ve gone a bit too far with this, you’ve lost track of something else, you’ve lost track of the thing that you loved, which is the words and the meaning—”

MT: You want control, but if you have too much you lose the spark of the poem. So you have to bring it back, take more risks. But then if you risk too much you have no control of the poem. You’re always working with the illusion of control, clinging to it for dear life.

EMN: Based on my reading, I’d say both of these books are highly stressed, but to different effects. With MH, I’d say it has a propulsive effect, whereas with MT it slows the reader down. Do you think about that when breaking down the prosody: what effect it has on the reading pace? Also, how do you control speed in a poem? What is speed in a poem? This is something I’ve struggled with.

MH: I’m always rushing toward an ending. It’s something Kevin [Connolly] and I worked on. I’m constantly getting to the end and then doing this “and here’s the ending” thing. Because of that tendency, there’s that rush, that propulsion forward, as I’m trying to move, move, move—then there’s a sudden stop. Things often pivot at the ending of the poems. The way that I do that [create the forward momentum]—and this [observation] is in retrospect—is I repeat constantly. I will have: “and…, and…, and…, and…”

EMN: On that repetition: you quote Phillip Levine’s “What Work Is.” That and “Belle Isle 1949” are moments when you can hear Whitman, especially with the repetition. I wonder why that keeps coming back.

MT: It’s Biblical.

EMN: But also plain spoken, natural, I think—

MT: The incantatory, the “and this, and this,” is rhythmic; it’s standing at the pulpit.

MH: It’s a sort of authoritative, common voice that’s telling you what’s happening—“this happens, then this happens,” like that.

EMN: Do you see that as tied to the place, the people, you’re describing?

MH: For varying reasons it would show up in different poems. If it’s a poem about someone’s day-to-day, then yeah, it’s coming from [his or her] voice patterns—I’m hoping that I’m doing that well. But in one where I’m making big statements, like “all the prairie’s a swimming pool,” where I’m making declarations, it’s coming from that pulpit voice, like “let me tell you what this world is.”

MT [to MH]: At the same time, you undercut it with a lot of that inward voice; you have those moments, but you make those uncertain. You have a line at the end of the book where you say something like “I’m going to lie about all these men,” which casts a shadow on everything you just read. It plays with the whole idea of honesty, of being honest to someone else’s voice or being honest to your own voice. Did you struggle with that?

MH: Yes. That’s why that poem [“Sunday”] is there. That’s probably the last one that was written and it’s the last one in the book. It’s like, “ah, I’m such a fucker and I need to acknowledge that a bit.”

MT: But there’s also that mythopoeic exaggeration of the young man but also of the male culture as well, which you tap into quite successfully. And, necessary to understanding these guys is knowing that they exaggerate their own place in the world.

MH: That was one of the difficulties of writing this: trying at once to say, “let me come clean because I’m stretching this a bit,” but that doesn’t mean everything is actually a lie. I’m lying but I’m not lying.

MT: There’s a great line [from “Dan”] about a guy with a cowboy hat, dancing, and he looks like he can take care of himself: “and you know that if a man were to snatch his hat/ playful like or angry, he’d beat him right to fucking death.” I read that and went, “oh, OK.” But then: he’s not a murderer, and I don’t believe you believe he’s capable of murder, yet that exaggeration is necessary to understand who he is. He has to believe himself, or at least put forth that persona of someone who’s tough enough to be able to do that. We’re in a weird mind here; I don’t believe it, but I know what you’re trying to say.

MH: It’s heartening to see you catch those things. Especially with a first book.

EMN: We’ll come back to first books, but on the pulpit-populist language, I’ve read that when you read these southern novels where uneducated labourers are using some form of high eloquence, it’s because all they read or heard was the King James Bible. And who is it the pulpit was talking to but working people? So it’s funny, but maybe not surprising that the pulpit and the people would have the same propensity for grandiosity.

[to MH]: There’s one poem where you flirt with romance—“does the farm girl hear this, over there/ in the tractor cab? Does she know it’s you?”—but then it ends, “But your hands, they’re already in an X above your head/ when you remember the sign for shut the fucking well.” So there’s that double level.

MT: He’s got the idea that the language is different. The language of “shut the fucking well” is to get something done. You only speak when you need to and you speak because some shit is going to go down, so you have to communicate exactly what to do. But then the narrator of a lot of these poems wants to look at language differently. There’s another poem [“Todd”] where there’s a guy trying to hold gas in his hand, and he’s looking for the colour of it. There’s an unbridgeable gap between the metaphor of the narrator[’s description] and the guy looking for the [actual] stuff of the Earth. He could not find it there; it’s a sad moment.

EMN: And he seemed like one of the good guys, too.

[To MH:] To finish the Levine comparison. His speaker is telling the “you” of “What Work Is” that “you don’t know what work is.” The Lease seems different. It seems the “you” knows what work is, but also feels outside of it. Did you viscerally feel that in-between-ness?

MH: In a lot of cases, these poems are me asking myself questions and trying to answer as truthfully as I can. Truthfully in the sense that sometimes the real version of things is the stretched one; it’s the experience instead of the reality. So, that “you” who sits in between is a product of interrogating different aspects of personality, different stages of understanding. It’s a product of having to confess to yourself. I guess that the version of me who was on his sixtieth or seventieth straight day of work knew about work or labour or life in a different way than I do now, and I wanted both voices.

EMN [to MT]: To get back to that idea of speed, let me give two analogies. Reading a Ken Babstock poem, a recent one, is like being battered in a storm; you read the poem and feel that, then go back and try to figure out what battered you. A recent Dionne Brand poem is like getting on a rollercoaster ride, so you feel the whoossh, then go back and see what you sped past. With your stuff, it was like I was looking at a mosaic too closely at first, that it seemed to be straight, but then wasn’t. Once I slowed down, I found that I could follow better, see the wider picture.

[To MH:] Did you find that, too?

MH: At times Matthew controls speed not necessarily through rhythm but through language and syntax. While reading, or hearing, there are these moments where I think I’m following along, like “this is a normal sentence,” but then I realized there’s been a switch, and that I’m now on to the next sentence. I need to pause for a moment to know exactly what’s been happening. So it’s the language itself that dictates the pace you should be going at.

MT: There’s a Dean Young line, from “Dear Writer,” and I had this pinned up to my wall for a long time: “I’d rather you lose me/ than cause delays telling me the way.” [to MH] I think that speaks to reading a sentence and you suddenly find yourself in a place where you didn’t expect to be. I didn’t want to have signposts up, like “now this is the next section”—

MH: And you shouldn’t.

MT: But I deliberately planned those surfaces between the associative leaps. I wanted it to be so that you got to the end and went, “whoa, wait, I’m at the end?” A lot of the poems stop rather than end.

MH: There are poems in [Probably Inevitable] where I get to the end and I say, “that really wraps this up.” Then: “wait, what is this wrapping up?” Then you go back and find that it’s wrapping up this bit, and this bit, and this bit. You do it well in [“Carbon Monoxide, Alka Seltzer and the Slow Pitch of Acceptance”].

EMN: And, when I slowed down my reading [of Probably Inevitable], I heard things like a three-syllable word at the start of this line, then one a few down, and another, and they really echo off each other if you hear every word fully.

MT: I don’t—and I’m not sure anyone does—write poems so they only [need to] be read once. I’d like you to get to the end of the poem and go, “okay, I’ll have to read this again.” But to follow on your point [on musicality], I hesitate to say that’s conscious. I’m glad that it happens but I’m not always sure how it happens. I’m conscious of keeping that possible, but I’m not tying bows on poems.

EMN: But do you ever recognize them—do you notice a three-syllable word here, then here, then say, “let’s make one happen here to reinforce that echo”?

MT: Yeah, but maybe not at that level of detail. Certainly, when you edit and you get other editors, other voices in, you start to recognize more things.

EMN [to MT]: In “Rising Action, then Falling,” you mention fusion jazz, which is an imprecise label, but let’s say it is marked by a building and unbuilding of melodic structure, by a kind of constant turning that is reminiscent of your book’s. Do you see that connection? Do you think in a way of starting a thought, an eloquence, then turning away, and in that creating a more complex music and semantic pattern?

Take the opening lines of “From the Outside In”: they bring out the deceptive density of these poems:

Undone funeral parlour, floral
papered walls in colours clinically proven
to sooth, I’m moved to watch my second hand
sock-hop ahead. Galileo lit on the pendulum clock…

So many “o” and “l” sounds there, the “our” echo in the first two lines, the echo of “proven, “sooth” and “moved,” then the sucker punch of “sock-hop” and “lit.”

These phrases seem everyday, but if you slow down, if you walk on them as you would on stepping-stones, they reveal more. There’s some level of deception there. Is that related to the breaking of the melody, of the constant turning?

MT: Ugh, jazz. I spent my late teens pretending to like jazz. Some solid, irrecoverable years.

The musicality of the poem is, I hope, fairly whole. But if you’re saying there’s a building and unbuilding of ideas, I can buy that, I take your point. The “leaps” or “turns”—those escapes from linearity—are cast in relief against the whole notes, so to speak, of those echoes that spiral through the poem. If there’s any deception going on, it’s on the level of seduction: I want you to want to read it again.

EMN: Let’s move on from the individual poem to the sequence or book. You both have fairly unified books, although yours [MT] is less unified by theme than it is by a way of looking at the world.

[To MH]: The Lease is focused on your time working in the oil fields, in Alberta. How did you come to focus on that as your subject matter?

MH: Well, my other stuff was crap. I moved [to Toronto] for the MFA [at Guelph-Humber] and I didn’t know a single person in Ontario. I was living in North Etobicoke in this tiny basement apartment with ceilings about a foot taller than I was, and I was suddenly in a workshop with Dionne Brand, who was intimidating as hell, despite her kindness.

I was miserable and happy all at once. For workshop, I just kept writing all this crap. It’d be the day before workshop, and I’d have to write a poem. Here I am in this place, I don’t know where I am—absolute shit poems. Then near the end, I was starting to get more comfortable—or more uncomfortable?—and I decided to try to write some oil field poems, because everyone seemed to be interested—for the first time ever—that I had worked there. No one cares in PEI [where MH is originally from]. So I wrote a couple, and people said, “do more of those.” So then I did, and eventually I became more interested and self-propelled.

EMN: When you were working in the fields, were you already writing, or thinking in that mode? Were you like the speaker [James, or the narrator], thinking on his two levels? There’s a mention of a Seamus Heaney book.

MH: At times. That Heaney book was really there and so were other books, but I wasn’t writing much. A lot of that’s a practical thing. You’re working sixteen-hour days; there’s not a lot of time for writing.

MT: But when you were doing it, were you imagining, “this is something I could possibly write about”?

MH: Ninety percent of the time all I was thinking about was “hurry up and leave this place.” That’s the honest truth: I was not enjoying myself. I felt like—penance is not the right word, but I felt like it was something I needed to do, then I’ll go back to my life. It wasn’t until I reflected on it that realized that experience had been changing me, and that while I was there, I had been thinking about and looking at the place and the people around me—and was changed because of it.

EMN: In “What You Do,” you write, “as if he could leak/ into you with words, as if they held any power here.” Is that your description of where words were at that point for you?

MH: It’s a cyclical thing. There was not a whole lot of power to the words, but you’ve got the narrator who thinks there is power there, who’s carrying around a book of Heaney in his rig bag. At the same time, you now have this person writing, who clearly believes words have power, no matter where they are. It’s the conflict in that that became interesting to me.

EMN: There’s a contradiction in that, too. There’s your concept of what language is—which you had there, and especially in looking back—but then there’s also the fact that the narrator was afraid the words would leak into him; there’s the fear that the workers’ banter would infect him, making him as crude as this person [“James,” who “wants to tour Thailand. He’s excited by the cheap sex/ the freedom from condoms and lube …”], which implies a power to those words.
MH: Yes, the very acknowledgment of that means it can happen. But the narrator of [The Lease] is deeply flawed.

MT: He’s looking at these models of maleness, and words are seen as something weak. [He’s thinking,] what is it to be a man? Is it to shun the idea of expression?

MH: There are attempts [at expression], but it’s “as if” it helps.

EMN: Or is it just that words are being put to a different purpose? The banter makes up some of the best parts of [The Lease]. They’re almost found poems, so there is something there.

MT: There’s some playful language there.

MH: Sure.

EMN: When you were still in the fields, did you get the sense there was a grand beauty about the place?

MH: I can’t imagine a person who can deny it. There are moments at two in the morning and you’re in the field and all you can see are single flare stacks. They’re thirty feet high, and that’s all you can see, and you can hear all the animals around you, and the sky is full—you can’t deny it.

MT: Did you ever have a sense of writing against what we think of as nature poems?

EMN: I have seen this mentioned as a prairie book.

MH: If you’re writing poetry in Canada, you’re aware, even if it’s false, of the “Oh, the great river…” So I was aware of that, and it worried me a bit—that I’d accidentally fall into that—but I worried that purposely writing against it would be no better. So I just tried to be as genuine as I could, to just write what was around me.

MT: There’s also no condemnation of the process, of the oil fields itself. There’s no editorializing. It must have been tempting, especially in retrospect.

MH: It was important for me [not to editorialize]. How hypocritical would that be? I’d be there making money, leave, then three months later bring on the criticism? [When] the BP spill happened in the Gulf, I was thinking, “don’t do that, don’t go near that.”

EMN: Have you gotten any criticism for that yet? Oil is such a fraught political topic, with people on both sides very passionate, but what’s lost in that seems to be what it’s actually like there.

MT: What work is.

MH: I’m much more concerned with the day-to-day and the people, and the book is too, than the grand layout of the thing. The other thing is that I tell people I worked in the oil fields, and they say, “oh, the Oil Sands?” “No, not really, I don’t know anything about the oil sands, nothing more than you do.”

EMN: One more thing on that: why “you” instead of “I”? You mention you were in Toronto, writing about being out there, so was that a way of distancing yourself from that experience?

MH: The opposite. In my undergrad I did a lot of distancing, like “I’m going to college, I’m learning things—”

MT: Book learning—

MH: I thought, “I’m going to leave this place and these guys who were crude and rough, who seemed like assholes.” But instead of distancing, I thought, “that was a very real thing you were doing, and these guys aren’t what you thought they were.” I’m hoping to God that it’s not judgmental.

A few things [about the second person]: I wanted to implicate the reader, because I feel very guilty about a lot of things, as a writer, so I wanted to bring other people into that. For me, poetry is about sharing feeling, so if I feel something—if I feel sick to my stomach—I want [people] to have to feel that too, and I mean that in the nicest, most open way possible.

EMN: Did you play around with an “I” instead?

MH: There was a bunch of “I”s in there. For the most part, the places where “I” showed up were much weaker.

EMN: So the “you” is not always yourself? Is it a seeing eye?

MH: It’s both. When you’re reading “you,” it’s usually pretty clear that it’s me, but I want you to imagine it’s you.

MT: The poems are talking back, into the past. So you’re talking to your younger self, which is “you.”

EMN: Have you heard anything about The Lease from any of the people you worked with in the oil fields?

MH: No, I haven’t, but I’m still in touch with a couple of people. I’m doing my best to be honest in writing these poems, and if you read them you can tell a lot of those guys are picking up books of poetry because they think they might show up in them, and a lot of them will never know that it exists. I’d be eager to see what they think; that’d be great.

EMN: I ask partially because I was wondering if this was one of those mythical poetry collections that you don’t have to be a poetry head to read.

MH: Just before I got here someone posted on my wall, another writer and a bookseller, that he just sold two to his landlord, because the landlord’s two kids work on rigs.

MT: Someone in Moncton [where MT and MH read together] said “it’d be perfect for my brother, who’s working out west.”

MH: So maybe—but I’m putting myself back in the field, and I’m thinking, “they might get the book, but they’re not going to read it.” That’s okay.

EMN: You might just get a good ribbing for it.

MH: That’s partly why a lot of them don’t know: they’re not the first people in my life whom I’d get a “good for you” from. More, “why’d you do that?”

EMN: Now you’re moving on from this book, and away from the experience that prompted it. Given the book was so focused, I imagine you were deep in that headspace. What’s it been like extracting yourself, especially because you have to go back into it to do readings and so forth?

MH: It’s strange. I took six months off between the last stage of editing and when the readings started. [When I] picked it back up, it was a bit new again.

MT: Physically as well as mentally, you moved away to a new city; you have none of the constant reminders.

MH: Yeah. It’s so far away—the kind of far away that I don’t think I could have waited another year and put it together.

MT: It would’ve been different. You could’ve done it, but it would have been different. The longer you wait with this kind of book, the more it morphs into something different.

MH: I’ve been messing around with a little writing since, and you can tell that I’ve picked up certain tendencies. It’s a bit of a stretch, but we were talking about how in a poem each word that you write limits the amount of options you have as you go and there comes a point where it’s fully made. Maybe it could be that way with books as well, or poems. So maybe with this book, I’ve adopted things that will be around for a long time. But my girlfriend promises me I’m not writing the exact same poems. Hopefully I’m not.

EMN: So are you in the womb of another book then?

MH: Pre-womb.

EMN: Back of the Chevy?

MT: Fumbling with the condom.

MH: And it’s going to break.

EMN [to MT]: We were talking about what we do after a first book.

MT: Write a second one.

EMN: Well, yeah. But how? It was five years between your first and second. Your first one is similar in some ways to The Lease, pretty personal, the “I” is prominent, or the “me” or the “me and Vaughan,” etc. Tell me about being in that space, then going out into a more contextual space with the The Hayflick Limit, where you’re moving from the firsthand experience to more abstraction, philosophy, science. When I first read the first one [Full Speed Through the Morning Dark], I thought it seemed like a different poet. Then I read through the last two and I could see the connection. Yet, there is a distance traveled between the first and the next two books.

MT: I think it was a question of growing up as a poet. A question of reading habits. A question of what I thought poetry should do vs. what it could do.

EMN: Should do vs. could do: explain that.

MT: The first book is written toward what I thought a poem should be. It was based on my reading experience at that time, that a poem has to do these certain things, and I’m going to manipulate my writing into that mould. I think any success that I ended up having [with Hayflick] was due to just being myself, not worrying about hitting certain notes, but following what’s in my head. You mention ‘conceptual’ or ‘abstraction’, and that’s more who I am than the person in the first book. It’s always hard to look back on the first book, because that’s the best I could do at the time, and that’s what I thought a poem should do at the time. There’s success in that, and there’s failure—stuff I wouldn’t want to look at now—but there’s also always a line you can trace from the first to the second book. You find the seed of the next book in a few of the poems from the first. I like that you can say, “I read it, and it didn’t sound like the same person, but then I went back and said, ‘well, wait.’” Because you can never not be yourself.

EMN: The “I” that comes up in Probably Inevitable is older—

MT: [Laughing] It’s a different “I.” This “I” is not me; it’s personas, it’s different people. The distance between the “I” in the first one and the person who went through those travels is very, very close. [In that case,] there’s always [rewriting in] hindsight, where you shift things around, but this new one is very, very different.

EMN: But how much of that just has to do with what was happening in your life? For Full Speed Through the Morning Dark, you were travelling, finding things worthy to write about. Did you then come to Toronto and find you had to seek that out in an intellectual way?

MT: Well, moving from an active to an inactive life, where you spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee shops—I’m not sure how to trace the evolution of that. Your environment affects your poems, but it’s also how you look at that environment. When I was travelling, I was looking at [my environment] as something that was worthy of being poetic. This is a part of where I think the flaw was in that book: I was seeking the material instead of letting it come to me.

MH: You were looking for what a poem should be or should do.

MT: Yeah, and it’s easy to hang your hat on experiences this way: it was an interesting experience; therefore, it will be an interesting poem. What happens then is your expression of the experience equals your expression of the poem. That isn’t always enough to make it a good poem, but sometimes it is.

EMN: So now you’re more focused on what a poem can do, with more elements, more possibility.

MT: Yeah, but I don’t want to say there’s something wrong about—obviously, Mat [H] has written a beautiful book here—

MH: But I’m going to go through this too, of looking back and saying, “what on Earth is that?”

MT: Yeah, and people often start off that way, in any genre. The first book, first novel, is often semi-autobiographical, because it’s tough to make that first step.

EMN: Didn’t Joyce say something about that, that you need to write your autobiography first? I think he just kept doing it, but that’s another topic.

MT: It’s also that moment, I think in your mid-to-late twenties. It’s those experiences where you create the myth of yourself. This is the story of yourself that you’re going to tell yourself over and over and it’s going to tell who you are. It’s very, very powerful; where you are and what you’re doing at that time becomes very important. Maybe that’s what Joyce meant.

EMN: Neither Full Speed Through the Morning Dark or The Lease contain much humour, although neither is particularly elevated either. There’s more in Hayflick and Probably Inevitable. How do you approach humour in your poems, and what is the function of humour in poetry? Is humour something included in what a poem can be, but often excluded from ideas of what it should be?

MT: I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t enjoy laughing. That said, humour is not something you can fake. You can’t be funnier in your poems any more than you can resolve to be funnier in the New Year.

What can happen, though, is that you filter out any natural inclinations because it doesn’t jive tonally with what you’re going for. It isn’t surprising that this happens— controlling tone in a poem is the author’s prerogative. But if it happens all the time, then, yes, you are in effect saying, “This is what I think poetry should be. It should be ‘brows furrowed.’ ”

When you laugh, though, reading a poem—at that moment of the laugh your critical defenses are down and you’re open to something new. You’re up for the next challenge. What poet wouldn’t want a reader in this frame of mind?

MH: I write a lot of drafts with humour in them, but I don’t really turn to poetry to express humour, so those drafts are usually abandoned. That being said, I like reading poems with some laugh to them, and writing humour is as legitimate a reason to turn to writing or reading poetry as anything else. The function of humour changes from poem to poem, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to serve any purpose beyond being funny. A lot of the time, though, people consider poetry “humorous poetry” because it’s funnier than other poetry, not because it’s actually funny. Gabe Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People is actually funny.

EMN: Let’s turn to the form of the book-as-a-whole.

[To MH] You imagine you’ll only ever work in larger themes, in books-as-a-whole.

MH: I’m an infant with this. Writing is still so new, and I could change, could totally spin around on a dime tomorrow. But I’m naturally obsessive, so I think I’ll work with constant themes and ideas for a while.

MT: Some people dislike book-length projects in favour of “just write some poems and put ’em together.” I think it comes down to how your mind works. I tend to get obsessive about things, or I’ll read about certain areas of the world or thought, and I constantly go back to that. The poems then end up taking that texture and that tone. And I tend to write in spurts as well, so the poems are butting up [against] each other, are close. They then tend to fall into that book-length thing.

EMN: How did Probably Inevitable come together?

MT: It was about hearing this way of thinking—this accelerated, disjunctive, aggressive way of thinking. It’s completely unrealistic. I wanted to immerse myself in this kind of hyper-time, and see what would come of that. So I wrote the poems in batches, and very quickly. This is where the unity comes from, probably. But I feel disingenuous, because there are poems in there that are one-offs. I feel odd sometimes because I feel like I’m talking about a novel—which has a plot that ties it together—but I’m not, I’m talking about a collection of poems, even though they all kind of go in the same direction.

But while I did shift gears, it takes four or five years to write these things. You can’t be concentrated that much.

MH: That’s obsession taken to the extreme. [To MT]: When you’re putting the poems together, how did you figure out the ordering? Did you try to craft some kind of arc through things?

MT: Well, like I said I wrote these poems in bunches, and they fell into rhythms or textures. I didn’t want to lump those together, so you’d get the same kind of poem for 20 pages then shift. So I was trying to extract as much variety from my work as I could. I don’t want to say I just threw them on the floor—I spent a lot of time trying to get how the poems speak to each other. Like, when you come off a poem, will it remind you of something you’ve read—

MH: You want to defy this: “am I going to do damage by placing these two too close together?”

MT: Yeah, if they’re too close in their concerns, they might need breathing space. Even something as mundane as length [might matter]. Sequencing is always tough. It’s always the last thing you do, and there’s no right answer.

EMN: On that, let’s look at the construction of “The Stratospheric Streak My Green Filament.” How do you write the small piece, while keeping the context of the sequence in mind, at the end, in the sequencing part, or even when you’re writing?

MT: I think it’s dangerous to try to do that when you’re writing.

EMN: So did you write those poems, then say, “oh, they go together? ”

MT: No, those were written to hang together, even if each one is a separate instance. But if you’re trying to write for something, to fill a gap, then the poem isn’t going to happen. You have to write past the finish line, and then eliminate the pieces that didn’t work.

EMN: In your composing of “The Stratospheric Streak My Green Filament,” what was it that those separate poems were meant to “hang” on?

MT: Well, there are a few points in each poem that had to echo back. There’s a few repeated lines, there’s the idea of centre/not centre, the refrain “where am I now?”, the found lines from Julian Barbour’s book. Those are the touch points. And I knew the poems had to jump around in time. So I had soft constraints for them, and those alone are what make it hang. I could conceive of a book where those poems were spread throughout, but I thought they were better together.

EMN [For MT]: how does that idea of centre/no-centre relate to how the poems work; that is, is the questionable nature of the centre related to these poems’ inability to stay focused, to stay on one track? Did the de-centred content demand a de-centred prosody/argument?

MT: Some of that was attributable to Barbour, who talks about the illusory nature of history as linear, a one-way track, as it were. Pushing off from his ideas of time, I imagined a centrifugal force flinging these poems, or instances, to the periphery. And yet they still run through a single perspective, a subjectivity, which asserts an opposite force, a centripetal one. It’s very disco ball.

EMN [to MH]: How much sequencing did you do with The Lease?

MH: Likewise, much of this came out in piles; then I was ditching things later. Now with this, there was a time period in my mind of when these things happen, a flow to that, and other concerns—I don’t want to put a poem first about a thing when nobody knows what it is. I want to explain to the reader what it is first, without being expository, boring, or doing it for a purpose. I was writing without thinking about it, hoping a lot of that got shaded in so I could take advantage of it. For the most part it did, but not having the experience that [MT] had, not knowing to say, “you can’t sit down to write a poem to shade in a gap,” I did do that a bit. And those poems that I did try to shade in: nothing, doesn’t work. Someone can do it, I’m sure; I can’t.

There was a point when the book was half done, or three-quarters done, and I sat down and said, “these are the things that need to get filled in to reach my idea of what this [book] should cover.” Then each time I said, “this person will get a portrait poem” or “this activity will get a poem”… a different poem came out. It wasn’t that they always failed, it was that I sat down to write a portrait poem about John, but it became something else. It wasn’t about John, or anything else, so I made what I could out of it.

EMN: You both have very specific, and deeply mined, subject matter. Did you ever worry about that overwhelming the poems themselves? Michael Lista, in The National Post, credits you [MT]—and discredits others for the opposite—for not allowing the science to overcome the poetry. I agree, but were you ever worried about that?

MT: Oh yeah. But, as you said, I hoped it wasn’t about [science] but a way of thinking. Even though, when you’re talking about the book, you have to talk about the subject matter, that it’s about “time.” But in my mind, it really isn’t. That’s the vehicle I use to get into a mode of thinking, of experiencing the world.

The problem is: when you talk about things that are unfamiliar to the imagined reader, you worry about that becoming a hindrance—or becoming the focus. When people talk about my poems as being about science, it’s because the information there is new to them and that becomes the focus. I wonder if Lista is talking about when you foreground interesting facts, it becomes about the facts, not the poem. I’m constantly working toward getting away from that. I want the science to inform the poems, but I don’t want them to be the poem. The poem, for me, is the persona speaking it. Does that make sense?

MH: Yeah. The Lease all takes place in the oil field, in the prairie. That’s just the setting.

MT: But you don’t take time to explain what fracking is.

MH: No. Because that’s not a poem. This is the advice that I constantly get: just write those words, let them be confusing. The practical part comes much later, when [Coach House editor] Alana [Wilcox] or Kevin [Connolly] and everyone read it and said, “I was a little confused here, is there anything you can do without ruining the integrity of the poem?” And so I add the word “the,” or something, and everything is clearer.

MT: Linda Besner wrote this article recently in Hazlitt (and she edited my book, so we’d had this conversation before). We were talking about notes at the end. This is sort of a new phenomenon as well: not that [those poets] are explaining their poems, but they’re explaining those parts of the poem that the poem itself doesn’t explain. I hesitate to give into that. When you start, where do you stop explaining the research that went into this poem?

MH: We’ve got a whole other conversation, a few hours long, if I were to explain everything I know about fracking. But that’s not the important part; the important part is what’s happening to the people whom I’m writing about.

EMN [to MT]: So what would you describe as the muse here, because it’s not science (at the start of a poem, the speaker will be taking a left turn, and at the end he’s still taking a left turn)?

MT: If it were philosophy or history, no one would make a big deal about it, because that’s a part of our assumed knowledge in the humanities. I want science to be just another piece of knowledge that the poet-speaker has. I do worry sometimes that being known as the science poet is going to ghettoize me somehow.

MH: [Your reception] is a difficult thing to talk about—

MT: Yes, and how I want my poems received is neither here nor there. It’d be nice to have them read as I intend, but I have no control over how people will read them.

EMN: And I think Probably Inevitable could be read as non-scientific poetry. It’s very uncertain and switches constantly from science to the everyday, the casual, which is a way of using science in a very unscientific way.

MT: It’s holding up the certainty the science purports to give us vs. the uncertainty that we all live in. In the poem, those two things chafe: the mystery of life and the certainty of life. This is in hindsight, but maybe that’s why I brought those things together, to highlight how much we don’t know, as opposed to how much we do.

EMN [to MH]: Did you ever fear your subject matter would overtake the poems?

MH: I’ve noticed myself [making that happen] occasionally. I’ve done readings where the audience isn’t the typical poetry audience, like they’re there to hear music, and maybe some poetry as well, and I find myself saying things like, “this poem is about a day I bought an apple at the store.” That’s not at all what the poem is about, it’s just what I happen to be doing in it—because [the poems] are not about the oil fields, but more than that. So I was worried about that—

MT: It’s an easy way to talk about a poem.

MH: And I was also worried, because the book is themed in that way, that I would end up writing the same poem sixty times.

EMN [to MT]: To end on a broader discussion, you’ve mentioned in a couple of recent interviews that you’re insistent on not failing. Considering the stringent-ness of some of [Probably Inevitable], is writing a poem a competitive thing for you?

MT: Well, you’re bound to failure. No poem ends up being the poem you thought you’d write. A poem is all about delay of meaning to the point that it’s ineffable. You can never really say, with certainty, something in a poem. With that built into the poem, it’s always going to fail as a communicative device—the idea of failure is something we live with as poets.

MH: The goal is so high. When you’re trying to communicate something, and you’ve chosen to do it through the medium of a poem, then you’ve accepted that you can never communicate that thing.

EMN: But there must be some bigger failure, the acceptable failure.

MT: The “Brilliant Mistake,” like Elvis Costello said. That’s all we can hope for, to follow our mistakes, because the mistakes or the failures are what make the poem. Our control of the poem is not complete. We make mistakes, but in those mistakes we find something we want to follow. So the fact that we can’t be successful is a good thing. We can’t sit down and write the poem that’s in our heads completely, but we have to find it.

EMN: What does that say about control? Are you the producer of the poem or do you corral the poem?

MT: I think the director of a film is an interesting comparison. You can kind of control the actors and the cinematographers, but these are different people with different consciousness, so you cannot control the piece. It’s a communal effort. With a poem, you can’t know what’s coming next. The unexpected trips you up all the time, but you have to learn to recognize the unexpected as something worthwhile.

MH: Just like you can’t write a poem to shade some [specific] thing in. And I don’t know if a poem is ever done until it’s read; it’s a collaboration in meaning.

MT: But what defines the success of a poem? I don’t know. What measurement am I using? Is it exactly what I wanted to say, or is it that someone read it and said it’s a good poem?

MH: When I’m trying to discover if this is a good poem or a bad poem, even the ruler is abstract. I think, “how properly does it realize itself? How well does it fill out the form that it has dictated for itself?” Which is so … circular.

EMN: I think the shaky foundation this question is built on—and the reason we can’t answer it—is: what is a poem? I have that “why is the sky blue?” moment sometime, because a poem can do so many different things. I’ve been wondering this since I read Derrick Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound. It’s all in careful Walcott couplets, yet it’s biography [of the painter Camille Pissaro], art history, and art criticism at the same time. I learned stuff from that book. If a poem can do that amongst so much else, how do you define what a poem is?

MT: Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things. It’s about taxonomy and science. Verse was used to impart knowledge. We don’t think of it doing that.

EMN: So what is a poem?

MH: I’m in no position …

MT: Let me write ten more books. We all have our aesthetic ideas. It’s a question of becoming aware of that in order to challenge it.

MH: I’ve got my own idea of what I’m trying to do and what the medium of poetry is best at. But it conflicts constantly with other people’s ideas, and I’m not confident enough in my version to accept it when I know that it conflicts with so many other people. So my definition is necessarily fluid.

MT: It’s not innate; it comes from the culture. So, how much do you let that inform your idea of what a poem is?

MH: And through practice, right? And in reading.

EMN: Here’s my thought that I can’t shake: is a poem a joke?

MT: As in set up, set up, punch line?

EMN: Maybe. I think it’s awesome when a poet pulls the punch line off. [To MH]: When you mentioned earlier that you felt you had an instinct to over-determine the end, were you working toward a punch line?

MH: Sometimes. It’s more that I have a natural rhythm that writes and writes—then shuts down really quickly, with a turn at the end. It’s rare that I’m working toward a punch line, but often, I suddenly close a poem off at the end.

EMN: Well, a joke is a pattern, then a turn from the expected. So is it that language, or how we use it, is a pattern, and we [poets] are just turning it at certain points? If the turn is the poetic equivalent of the punch line.

MT: People have challenged this idea—certainly Perloff—of the formula for the poem that has the turn at the end. Once you become aware of that—and maybe in my first book I didn’t know that a poem could move differently than that—then you work against it. That’s the evolution of any kind of art.

MH: And a turn is no longer a turn. You’ll notice my tendency is [to end a poem on a turn]; a lot of the poems [in The Lease] don’t do that, because I’m aware of it. It’s a shifting thing.

EMN: And if we consider “joke” in a wider sense, as an ambiguity—

MT: And its seed is in language.

MH: The problem with [the comparison] is that when we think about “joke,” it’s difficult to take it away from humour. So the ideas conflict, because often poems aren’t funny.

EMN: Something we were talking about earlier, with the echoing [of sound], and widening the idea of rhyme, calling them “echoes” and letting them go without categorizing them—

MH: It’s more than just sound, it’s also the rhyming of ideas off of each other, or images, or events.

EMN: Yes, and so if we broaden the definition of a joke, out into anything that implants ambiguity in the language—

MT: But in a joke that ambiguity is resolved, and that’s what makes it funny. I don’t know if poems ever work that way; it has to stay within that ambiguity to become a successful poem.

EMN [to MT]: Okay, now, if the turn is to the poem as the punch line is to the joke: if a comedian came in here, they might say, “punch line? You have to have three punch lines, they need to invert each other?”

MT: There’s The Aristocrats where the idea isn’t in the [punch line] itself, but in finding the humour elsewhere. You might not find that in the punch line, but in the anticipation of the punch line. What happens if you never end the joke? Is it still funny, is it still a joke?

MH: They’re both collaborative: there are two people participating in the telling of the joke, as with poetry. But I don’t know if it’s to an equal degree. But I’m not sure; I wonder if that’s a part of the ambiguity, if the resolution [in a joke] is often left on the other side [from where it is in poetry].

MT: You can never know what the other person is thinking; the only way you can know is if you laugh at the same time.

EMN [to MT]: Getting back to your thought on The Aristocrats, how are you using turns in Probably Inevitable? There are turns, but to me, it’s like there are so many, so scattered …

MT: I did think about this. A lot of the poems run a page and a half. I want, instead of having that turn as a stop, to instead bury the end further up, or maybe have many ends, or play with the idea of an end and have the poem run out. Duration was more important than any overall shaping of the poem.

MH: There’s the beginning, middle and end, or perhaps the end is [a] sputtering. I won’t say it’s about time …

MT: I had this idea of a balloon filled with air and you press down on it and it’s sputtering out until it’s: “phssss.” That’s the poem. Then you fill it up with air again. It’s the capacity of the poem that determines when the end comes, not so much the internal logic of the poem.

MH: Or, [the end’s determined] by which bit of air comes out at the end.

EMN: If it’s not logic or argument, then, is it structure, or sound, that determines the end?

MT: Yes. The form is not necessarily internally driven—the poem itself does not determine how long the poem takes to finish. The constraint is that the poem has to fit this duration. I consciously chose that. But because my idea of what a poem is works against that, I still find ways to make that poem conform to ends, or turns, or whatever you want to call them. There’s still cohesiveness there in some of the strands. There’s this idea that all the strands are kind of picked up when the poem stops.

MH: You were speaking earlier of the editing process, and writing past what you need. Through that kind of editing process, you have the ability to take that amount of space and change what is filling up that space.

EMN: Why that length?

MT: Intuitive. I think about the demands on the reader. I do pack a lot into that page and a half, but maybe two and a half pages might’ve lost that cohesiveness. The first few ended up that length and the rest followed suit.

EMN: Do either of you see yourself breaking out of that short form?

MT: Absolutely. You never know what next step you’re going to take.

MH: Like you said, in the first [book] you’re going to get little threads of what the next one is going to be about. I’ve found that’s already true with what I’m starting to work on now.

EMN [to MH]: Any idea which of these poems you’re going to pick up the threads of?

MH: No idea. I’m greatly influenced by the fact that I’m now thinking about what the next poems will be about. I’ll find that information anywhere. I’m on the streetcar and all around me are the poems I’m writing. I’m going to find it because it’s what I’m thinking about. There’s a fallacy for that: looking for a particular result, you find it everywhere.

EMN [to MT]: Any idea what’s next?

MT: No.

EMN: This is your third, so what’s it like detaching from a book?

MT: The experience is painful. For The Hayflick Limit, I couldn’t stop. I had the book in, but I just kept writing. I had another twenty poems. Then I had a big gap [before] I started writing Probably Inevitable. Those [twenty] poems are in purgatory. I didn’t dismiss them because they were bad poems, it’s just that it was a struggle to get to something new. The inertia from [Hayflick] spilled over, kept going. I want to challenge myself. I don’t want to write the same book again.

MH: It’s terrifying that you could even accidentally do it.

MT: In some ways, you can’t avoid doing it, because you are who you are, but you have to make as much effort as possible to push off from that last book. The business of poetry makes you push off. You have to tour with the book, and you read the same poems that you then get sick of. It forces you to look at the book as an object instead of something that’s fluid and in flux. It’s static.

EMN [to MH]: And with you, the writing of this was a distancing from an actual experience, and then touring with it must return you to that place—so how far away are you now?

MH: I have never spoken more about the oil field than I have in the last two-and-a-half months. It was once just a thing, and now it’s the only thing I talk about.

MT: And you must be saying the same things, too. You’re not discovering new things about the oil fields.

MH: I feel like that guy who only has one thing to talk about. But I swear I’ve done other things. I’ve seen movies. Let me tell you about this movie I saw, or anything. I won’t want to write about the oil fields anymore.

MT: But it’s not like you exhaust a subject by writing about it. I mean, time and poetry? People have been writing about that for … I could write about that for the rest of my life, and not even touch it.

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. You might know him as Ted. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. His non-fiction has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, Pucklife.com, Hockeyinsociey.com and The Toronto Review of Books. His poems have appeared in The Toronto Quarterly, The Puritan and Contemporary Verse 2. He is currently working on a poetry manuscript entitled For the Ghost of Muley Graves and looking for a home for another, Still. He teaches and writes in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read more at emartinnolan.wordpress.com.