Cooley was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and raised on a farm near there. A founding editor with Turnstone Press; editor of many literary titles; has published about 100 articles, reviews, interviews, and columns; two critical titles; well over a dozen books of poems, the latest being correction line. Teaches Canadian literature, poetry, creative writing, literary theory at St. John’s College, the University of Manitoba, where he has received a teaching award. With David Arnason, runs the Canlit archives on the internet.
He has conducted dozens of workshops, and has taught and read many times in Europe. Was the first visiting professor in Canadian studies, Universität Trier, in 1999 (a postmodern journal, passwords, came out of that experience) and again in 2005; and was guest professor in Canadian studies, Universität Augsburg, in the summer of 1996. Has participated a number of times in Sage Hill summer writing programmes.
He is currently working on a collection of essays, a number of travel journals, and several books of poetry.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
What set me off was a series of experiences that came together in the fall of 1978. I was then teaching literature at the University of Manitoba, a recently arrived professor who was keenly interested in teaching poetry and in writing about it. I was also an enthusiastic Canadian nationalist and proud regionalist. The classes were burgeoning with students eager to study Canadian literature, Canadian literature was humming everywhere, including certainly at St. John’s College (at the University of Manitoba) where I was positioned, and the College was jumping with ideas and aspirations. There were a clutch of bright young academics and graduate students there (Robert Enright, Birk Sproxton, Ken Hughes, Wayne Tefs, David Arnason, and—senior scholar and writer—Robert Kroetsch), all of whom were caught up in the excitement. We felt giddy, almost, with a sense that we were part of an explosion of writing and publishing, teaching and editing, that was new and mattered. I was also involved from the outset with a few of the new projects that got underway then, in the mid-1970s, including Arts Manitoba (which later became Border Crossings), a series of literary conferences, and the beginning of Turnstone Press. And then more broadly, I was involved, as were many others, in starting the Manitoba Writers’ Guild. So those impulses nudged me into writing, into being able to see it as possible.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Almost any where, any time. The occasion may be small or inconsequential, it may be memory, it may be fantasy, it may be something that has affected me personally, but it often involves reading other poets. It often comes for me from finding some site around which I can daydream and doodle, some area I can research or mull over, fumbling over a terrain even when I am aware of it and thinking of it.
What is your writing process?
I “write” at almost any old time or place, whenever I get a chance. I don’t have any schedule or regimen. Much of the time I will be scribbling out lines or phrases or rhymes or loose chains of verbal associations which I lay aside. I toss them into folders (some of them identified as “sites”) which I later mine for material, sometimes combining bits and pieces from these notes. Invariably I will begin with handwritten material, whether that consists of notes or drafts. Then I will play around with that stuff, usually asking myself where I could take it, what potential it has. I will fill the page with leads, however tenuous or silly they may be, even if they seem perfectly useless or ill advised. Then I type some more developed version of the poem into my computer, print it out, and repeat the process, tweaking that text and with few constraints, writing other words all over that version. And so on.
What is your revision/editing process?
Endless. I don’t much distinguish between composing and revising, since I am constantly teasing the page, and almost always expanding what it is I have begun. But I do revise again and again. Sometimes when the poem gets big, I break it off into smaller bits, which become their own poems and subject to the same process of expansion and substitution. Writing and revising are for me an unending proliferation of words, but of excision and substitution too, many of the words chosen for their phonic qualities, and their graphic qualities too, since I am addicted to words spilling into other words, begetting their likes again and again. It’s a case of rampant resemblance run loose.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
No, I didn’t write poetry in highshschool. I started quite late, really, as I’ve noted above. In highschool I was pretty occupied with sports and part-time work, though I always loved poetry, and had been inspired as a kid by my public-school teacher, Mr. Third, who had a genius for teaching the mechanics of writing, of eliciting a love of books (he was a breath-takingly good reader and would read to us often after lunch in what was a great pleasure for every single student in his classes.) He also had a real knack of drawing out verbal skills in his students. Until I was well into university he would easily have been the most important literary influence on me, and probably remains one of the most important to this day.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
Partly the resources depend on the project. It’s always useful for me to scout whatever sources I can find. When I was first writing there was no real access to the enormous amount and kind of material now on the internet, and so I used printed material (newspapers, say, for Bloody Jack; books on astronomers and cosmonauts for This Only Home; multiple resources for a book of vampire poems, seeing red; and so on). I still draw heavily on print material even as the internet has become increasingly useful in many ways. To take a simple example: on the internet you can easily check on an allusion to the Bible, or a line from it which you might want to put to use. You can find all sorts of things there that could be brought into play by a poet. The postings may not always be reliable, but even then they can suggest some possibilities for what you are working on.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
For me, more than anything probably, it would have been to hear, to see, that such things are possible, being a poet that is. It would have been crucial (and in way later did become crucial) for me to see that someone actually was doing these things, to see that a poet from “my” world might be involved in writing poems, and that others too might do the same.