Mike Spry has written for The Toronto Star, The National Post, Indiewire, TSN, MTV, Joyland, and Maisonneuve. He is the author of the poetry collections JACK, which was shortlisted for the 2009 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. He was longlisted for the 2010 Journey Prize for a story from his collection Distillery Songs, which was shortlisted for the 2012 ReLit Award.
Mike and I have been friends for nearly a decade. We studied Creative Writing at Concordia together, we’ve worked together at Summer Literary Seminars and he was my star columnist back when I ran a humour website for Playboy. I talked to him about his latest poetry collection, Bourbon & Eventide.
– Melissa Bull
When did you get the idea to write an entire collection of tercets? Was that your plan from the outset?
Well, I realized that publishers will pay you the same for a collection of poetry, regardless of the amount of words used. Which, I guess, explains visual poetry. Or doesn’t.
Outside of financial concerns, which are at the forefront of any decision a poet makes, the tercets were happenstance. I hadn’t written anything in a few years, and I had left my job and Montreal, and I needed to write again, but more importantly I needed to write something new. Different. I didn’t want to be working on B-sides. And on train rides around Ontario that summer, I found myself writing these short poems. And I liked them. And I was happy to be writing again. So I gave myself some constraints, as a sort of exercise, in order to counter what I thought were typical of my previous poems: pop culture references, swearing, length, and first person narratives. So, I promised myself I would only write tercets, with minimal pop references, no swearing, and all in the third person.
But, even at that point, I had no intentions of a collection. I wasn’t really interested in writing another books of poetry. I just wanted to write, really. And then, after I had left the poems, there was some talk with Invisible, and they had some interest in a collection, and I think they thought it would be more like Jack. Long narrative pieces. So when I was trying to put together a collection, I had longer pieces interrupted by the tercets. And it all seemed so messy. Disjointed. Desperate, even. Like I was writing a third-year essay and needed to hit a word count. And I didn’t like the longer pieces much. They were very much the B-sides.
So, late in the summer, or maybe early in the autumn, I was enjoying a Montreal terrasse with Dave McGimpsey and bourbon, and I floated the idea of a collection of just the tercets. Dave’s not one to bullshit, so I figured he’d tell me it was a bad idea, make fun of me a bit, and then we’d split a cab home. But, he agreed it would be interesting, so I built the manuscript out of tercets, and the good people at Invisible liked it.
But mostly it was about the money.
Speaking of money, do people outside of the arts try to prod you into more lucrative careers? Is there a way to explain your choices to them? I only ask because people are always asking me this type of thing. (They usually suggest kickstarter, or screenwriting, or teaching kindergarten.) I am thinking about how we have to recommit ourselves to our writing careers. I am wondering if this is something we especially have to keep doing as we age. What do you think?
Oh, man. Do they ever. My sister used to send me ads for copywriters in Toronto and cc my mum so that I’d be compelled to apply. Pretty sure her motivation was free babysitting. I have friends who do spit takes when they hear how much I make from literary writing. But, truthfully, I’m very fortunate to make a living writing and editing and occasionally teaching. I’m not a millionaire, but I’m comfortable. And freelancing allows a very malleable schedule. I can work from anywhere as long as I have a WiFi or cell signal.
The renumeration for literary works is a hot mess. Too many publication don’t pay. Too many writers and editors willing to work for free. It’s all too Toronto-centric. A little too clubhouse. There are way way way too many presses getting money to publish books. I’m all for public funding of the arts, but in its current state it hurts the industry. You can make more for reviewing a book than writing one.
Of course, we all knew what we were getting into. No one forced us into this. And I like it.
I don’t think we’ve actually had that conversation about why you wanted to be a writer in the first place. You say you knew what you were getting into… what made you want to get into this in the first place?
I’m not sure, entirely. I came to it late. I wasn’t one of those kids who wrote poems in high school. I read a lot. And I liked words. But I was a fuck-up in my 20s. I chased a girl to Vancouver, and that didn’t work, so I worked in restaurants and drank a lot. Then suddenly it was 10 years later, and I was going nowhere. So I applied for three university/college programs. One in radio broadcasting, one in music production, and one in creative writing. Then I moved to Costa Rica and figured I’d either come home if I got accepted into one of the three, or live on the beach forever. I got into Concordia, and that’s where my writing really began to form under the tutelage of Stephanie Bolster, David McGimpsey, and Mikhail Iossel.
(I hate myself for using the word ‘tutelage’ there. That doesn’t sound like me at all.)
Even then I had aspirations to be a writer. To publish books. But I really liked it. And I was okay at it. And I was surrounded by good people. I don’t think it would’ve happened anywhere else but Montreal. I wouldn’t have been able to manage it in Toronto. I’m very lucky it all worked out.
Can you talk about the fiction-non-fiction elements of your poetry? How would you describe these narrative glimpses?
You mean, is it fiction and how much is real?
Well, that’s your own business. But the idea of fiction, or as Nelly Arcan might call it, “auto-fiction”, or a kind of creative non-fiction told in the first person in poetry, is something I’d like to hear more about.
Well, most of what I had written before Bourbon & Eventide was in the first person. And people would ask: Who’s the girl? Do you still drink? How much of that is you? And so, as part of an exercise to get me writing poetry but in a new way, I gave myself some constraints at the outset, based on combatting some of my personal tropes: No swearing, very little pop culture, nothing more than a tercet (three lines), and all third person. And then people asked: Who’s the girl? Do you still drink? How much of that is you?
My guess is that the work is genuine, and very narrative, so it suggests truth. And that’s what I enjoy in poetry. Give me Tony Hoagland or Brenda Shaughnessy or David Berman. Give me a story. Don’t draw a picture of a bullet using only vowels and then tell me it’s a poem. That experimental shit is for grad students and grants. I want poems to make me laugh then break my heart, borrowing a phrase from Donald Bartheleme.
And, of course it’s based in truth. I’m not smart enough make it all up, but I am smart enough to know I’m not that interesting, so it needs to be embellished. Played with. Twisted. That’s the fun part. To rewrite your own mythology, to consider parallel futures. To succeed in a narrative where you failed in life. Or to fail where you succeeded. Just to see. Just to imagine where the other paths go.
Melissa Bull is a writer, editor and translator based in Montreal. Her writing has been featured in Event, Matrix, Lemon Hound, Broken Pencil, The Montreal Review of Books, Playboy and Maisonneuve. She has translated such authors as Kim Thuy, Évelyne de la Chenlière, Raymond Bock, Alexandre Soublière and Maude Smith Gagnon for various publications, including Maisonneuve, where she is the editor of the “Writing from Quebec” column. Her translation of Nelly Arcan’s Burqa de chair was just published and her collection of poetry, Rue, is forthcoming.
Mike Spry‘s latest collection of poetry is Bourbon and Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014).