Born in Toronto, Colin Morton grew up in Calgary, where he received a B.A. in 1970. His M.A. thesis at the University of Alberta was a novel. Colin has taught at many levels, from junior high special ed. to universities and colleges in Canada and the U.S. Married once and for good, he now in Ottawa, where he writes full-time, does freelance editing on the side, cycles, swims, and gets some of his greatest pleasure from rereading the books he read in his youth. His books include In Transit (1981), This Won’t Last Forever (1985), The Merzbook (1987), How to Be Born Again (1991), Coastlines of the Archipelago (2000), Dance, Misery (2003),The Cabbage of Paradise (2007), The Local Cluster (2008) and the forthcomingBoundary Issues. He has also performed his work with musicians, and in the award-winning animated film Primiti Too Taa.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
In an essay to appear in Ottawater.com, I write about an early encounter with poetry:
Perhaps the first time I heard poetry spoken and realized it, the poem went
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Hung your clothes on a telephone wire.
This was a special kind of utterance, I knew right away. The insistent rhyme and rhythm, the vivid images that, I knew, bore a peculiar relation to the truth. Those images created by nothing but words packed a strong emotional punch, but said little or nothing about the location or condition of anyone’s clothing. The words referred to something else, a subtext that my preschool mind had little difficulty in grasping. Strangely too, although the words were packed with emotion, kids could express those emotions and go right on playing with the kids who made them angry. The words, because they were poetry, had a power to release emotion and also the capability to deflect those emotions, usually, away from a physical confrontation. This was a compact lesson for a four-year-old. Although they were fighting words, the lines invited not a physical but a verbal response, preferably just as clever. Poetry doesn’t make things happen in the usual way, I understood early, but things do have a way of happening when poetry is around. And it often leads to more poetry.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Inspiration is a big part of poetry. How else to account for those surprising ideas we have and lines we write without knowing where they came from. Part of the reason writers keep writing, year after year, is for the occasional joy of having ideas flow as if effortlessly. This always seems to happen, for me, when I am at my desk, or my window-seat, writing. If I had waited for inspiration to begin writing, I never would have been in the position to be “inspired.” What most often gets me started writing now is curiosity—once, perhaps, it was impatience—but what gives me inspiration is to be writing and having the writing go well.
What is your writing process?
Difficult question. Not to be too simplistic, my process is usually to write the first line, and then the second, and then, if possible, the third. By that I mean it is the sound of the words that usually guides me toward what comes next in the poem. Some writers brainstorm and diagram relations between ideas and images before they start putting a poem into words; not me. The poem usually comes into being little by little, the new lines being shaped by the foregoing ones, even as they are shaping how I feel about those earlier lines.
What is your revision/editing process?
When I revise, I do the same: I go back to the beginning and try to re-experience the whole thing in sequence. Poetry is an art, after all, that exists in time.
In revision, I reapproach the poem from many angles—trying to encounter it as a reader, as if it is new to me; then trying to get back into the frame of mind when the lines first came to me. I wouldn’t consider a poem finished before I had done this a few dozen times.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Yes. I had written apocalyptic SF novels since junior high, but poetry chose me early in my twelfth grade year. It was 1965 and I had spent the previous summer hitchhiking from Calgary to Toronto and Montreal and back. The Beatles were at an ashram in India, Bob Dylan was cracking up on a motorcycle, and I was writing ten, twelve poems a day and showing them to my friends in study class. I wrote through math and chemistry classes, which I barely passed. I wrote on lined notebook paper and numbered and dated my poems. I don’t do any of those things any more.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
Since curiosity is my “muse” nowadays, the Internet is a great resource for me. Last year I drove out west to research a new book and found troves of helpful material on the Web that made my travels more enjoyable and more productive. I could read whole books online, use maps, images, films and so on.
My most valuable resource, though, has always been my local branch of the public library.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
I never had the opportunity that some students today have, to meet real live poets and have them visit my class. I think the biggest motivation from that is for the student writer to find out that he/she isn’t the only one, and that writing poetry doesn’t make you impossibly odd or a certain failure.
I needed to know that there is a place for a writer. The writer has a role to play in society, in creating our culture, but it is hard to imagine actually living that life and playing that role until you meet and observe someone doing it.
At university in Calgary, I got to know the writer in residence, W. O. Mitchell, and his family. To see a writer making time to write and yet having a life was a lesson I must have taken to heart. Poetry is great, but it doesn’t offer me as much as my life with my family. In fact, I try not to take it too seriously, and I don’t think what I write suffers from that bit of perspective.