Roger Nash is a past-President of the League of Canadian Poets. As President, he helped create the Canadian Poet Laureate position, arguing for it in the Senate. He has won a number of literary awards, including the Canadian Jewish Book Award and the Confederation Poets Award (twice). His seventh and most recent book of poems is Something Blue and Flying Upwards: New and Selected Poems (Your Scrivener Press, Canada, 2006). He recently published a collection of essays on the psalms, The Poetry of Prayer (Edgeways Books, U.K., 2004). He also publishes short fiction, and his story, “The Camera and the Cobra,” is in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2009 collection (Random House, U.S.A., 2009). He is a keen kayaker and bush-walker. He teaches Philosophy at Laurentian University, where he is Director of the Humanities MA in Interpretation and Values.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
The original lightening-flash experiences that first inspired me to write poetry, were the lightening-flashes, continuous rumbling thunder, downpours and bright sunshine, of falling in love, head over hiking-boots, as a teenager.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Often, I’m nudged, sometimes shoved, into writing a new poem, by my reactions to what goes on around me. There are moments of being deeply intrigued by people (awed, puzzled, delighted, amused, annoyed, saddened…). Then there are moments of being fascinated by nature, both in her small details (a cocoon on a leaf) and in the broad sweep of her terrifyingly beautiful power. Sometimes, in reading poets of the past, I’m drawn into conversations with them, over the intervening centuries, by replying to them in the only language that transcends that time-gap: poetry. In each case, the intrigue, the fascination, the need to reply, brings a broodiness and moodiness with language, so I can, in a very physical way, feel the pulse of words, almost their taste, in my mouth.
What is your writing process?
I try to wait until I think I have something to say, until I feel very broody with language. However, I only discover, in creating the poem, quite what it is I want to say. I usually start by scribbling on the backs of old envelopes, then move to writing on foolscap, and end up at the computer keyboard. At each stage, I’m trying the emerging poem out in my voice, aloud or in my mind’s ear; and in my movements, by dancing, shrugging, tapping or gesticulating it into being. A poem is a dance of sorts, a word-dance, not something that lies quiet and flat on a page. What I write down are just notes for that dance.
What is your revision/editing process?
The last step in revising and editing, for me, is changing text at the computer. But it’s a relatively small step, led up to, and only a record of, the previous big steps of revising. I finding out, perhaps over months or years, in performing that poem alive, that it doesn’t ring true in my voice, my breathing, my chest. Its rhythms, its rhymes, falter; or it slips insincerely from my lips. My audiences co-create revisions, too. Their responses help show me whether something works or not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’ve finished with a poem or not—whether further improvements may be possible. But, after a bit, you feel a poem has finished with you: you’ve tried this change and that and then another, but the poem resists them all and seems better as it stands.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
I began writing poetry in the earliest grade of high school. But before then, in primary grades and kindergarten, I loved making up rap-like chants, remembering them in my head without writing them down. I was actually quite slow in learning to read and write. So, for me, making poetry came before making print. I got started on writing down poetry not because that was a school assignment, but because poetry seemed the natural language to express what I felt, falling for a girl. And love felt so sky-blue important, I didn’t want to trust it to my often cloudy and small memory.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
Read the poets you love, and read them often, getting a feel for how their poems work. Then talk back to them in poems of your own. Be alive to how life around you, not just text-books, can show you how to make poetry. Write a poem whose sounds are as soft and graceful in their sequence as the swaying branches of a willow. Write a poem whose sounds growl, cough and leap about like a stuttering snowmobile. Open a big dictionary frequently, perhaps randomly, at any page, and meet words as strange as flocks of purple parrots, that make you see and feel the world differently.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
You don’t have to wait until you’re older, to be a poet. There’s no more an age-requirement for poets than a requirement about the colour of socks they should wear. A good poet is someone who writes good poetry. Some very good poems are written by people in their teens; and some very bad ones by people much older. Try it now! But be prepared to work at it, perhaps spending more time revising than writing.