Tom Wayman is the Squire of “Appledore,” his estate in B.C.’s southern Selkirk Mountains, where he raises vegetables and flowers that he tries to keep the deer from eating. Since 1973, more than 15 collections of his poems have been published in Canada and the U.S., most recently High Speed Through Shoaling Water (Harbour, 2007). He has edited several poetry anthologies, including The Dominion of Love (Harbour, 2001), an anthology of contemporary Canadian love poems. Two collections of his literary and cultural essays have been published. His books of fiction include Boundary Country (Thistledown, 2007), short stories, and A Vain Thing(Turnstone, 2007), novellas. His most recent book, based on a lecture he gave in 2007 as the Ralph Gustafson Poetry Chair at B.C.’s Malaspina University-College, is Songs Without Price: The Music of Poetry in a Discordant World (Institute for Coastal Research, 2008). After a career spent teaching mainly either in the B.C. community college system or in alternative educational institutions, since 2002 Wayman has taught at the University of Calgary. Over the years he has been writer-in-residence at such institutions as the University of Windsor, University of Alberta, and the University of Toronto.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I started to become interested in writing poems when I was in high school in Vancouver and somehow read The Holy Barbarians, Lawrence Lipton’s 1959 account of California beat poets. This was the first time I learned that poetry didn’t have to be rhymed and metred, but could be free-form-free-verse. Then in Grade 12, as part of an enrichment program for Vancouver high school students, UBC brought a group of us out to campus Saturday mornings to visit science labs, and also to hear the poet Earle Birney discuss the creation of a one of his poems.
When I enrolled the next autumn at UBC, my goal was to be an astrophysicist—I took three years of university physics, and two of math. However, I hit the wall at trying to comprehend the area of three-dimensional objects, and decided to concentrate on English—where after a while I was getting better marks. I began to work on the student newspaper, The Ubyssey, which at the time was the 11th largest newspaper in the province. An informal arrangement with The Vancouver Sun meant that we worked summers on the Sun, and winters on The Ubyssey (I was editor-in-chief of the latter in 1965-66), and were expected to hire on at the Sun upon graduation.
Because I won a big fellowship in my last year at UBC, I decided to try graduate school before going to work full-time on the Sun. I chose the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine—a two-year degree in those days. At UCI, I landed in a milieu where poetry was one of the most exciting art forms going, and I never did continue on as a journalist.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Inspiration for me originates with an emotional surge—a feeling that I realize can be articulated as an image, or an image with a strong emotional tinge. Because my home is in the West Kootenays (in the Selkirk Mountains of B.C.’s southeast), but I teach in Calgary, I spend a lot of time on the two-lane mountain roads steering back and forth across the Great Divide. One day during such a drive, I had been brooding about how our country was stampeded into an armed intervention in the Afghan civil war—really a battle between two odious groups, neither of which is any direct threat to Canada except that both provide the heroin that destroys so many Canadian lives.
The headstrong insistence on the part of the Harper government that Canadians should die to prop up a corrupt and vicious narco-regime, whose ideas on the status of women and of freedom of thought and religion are virtually identical to their psychopathic opponents, seemed to me that day on the road to be echoed in the behavior of some cattle truckers trying to push forward amid a line of cars of which I was a part. The truckers crossed double yellow lines to try to pass, forced oncoming traffic onto the shoulder, bulled back into our line when they roared by just about sideswiping us—all so the truckers could get to their destination a few minutes sooner. So I wrote a poem opposing our part in the Afghan war, a poem that is set in a line of traffic menaced by speeding, out-of-control transport rigs on a B.C. highway.
In a calmer mode, I noticed one day that the squirrels rummaging in my hazel trees on my property in the West Kootenays make the branches bob and sway much as certain kinds of wind do. I combined this observation with how bears when they’re up in my fruit trees after my plums, pears or apples bend branches even more—the motion of the limbs in this case resembling the effect of the stronger winds that accompany summer thunder storms in our area. I wrote a poem called “Wind-Animal” that tries to describe these different winds in terms of squirrels and bears moving through the trees.
What is your writing process?
I generally make very brief notes with ideas for poems on scraps of paper. I carry these around with me, or leave them lying on my desk, until I have a clear space in my life and can develop them into full-fledged poems. In the summertime I write every day for several hours (usually from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.). But during the academic year I write whenever I have time free from course prep, marking, committee work, and meeting with undergrad students and grad students.
What is your revision/editing process?
Every poem goes through multiple drafts, until I can read it through without wincing. Then I read the poem aloud, which usually results in dozens of more drafts, until I have the sound and rhythm correct to my ear. Then I send the poem out to literary magazines to see if anybody is interested in publishing it. The poem will be rejected anywhere from ten to 25 times during the next several years. Each time when the poem returns to me, I reconsider it. Either more revision occurs, or else I congratulate myself on my genius and send it out again. Most poems experience either some revision or a wholesale recasting during these years. When I at last assemble a book, sometimes additional revision of a poem is necessary because of a poem’s use of language, or of an image, similar to that in another poem—a similarity that I fail to notice until the two poems are drawn into proximity in the new manuscript.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
As I mention above, reading The Holy Barbarians led me to try my hand at writing long rambling pieces. The session when I was in Grade 12 with Earle Birney, that I also mention above, taught me the importance of craft. Birney was steeped in the history of English-language poetry (he was a Chaucer scholar, as well as a poet), and he convincingly demonstrated the need to carefully choose one’s diction and form in a poem, as well as the need to carefully select content. I think my first-ever poem was published while I was in Grade 12—a piece about B.C.’s rainforest coastline (for seven years while I was growing up, our family lived in Prince Rupert, where it rains 150 inches a year—half-again as much rain as Vancouver gets).
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
What is most useful to a young poet is to constantly read poems by poets active today, and also to constantly read poems that poets wrote in the past. These poems are found in literary magazines, in anthologies of poems written by many poets, and in collections of poems written by a single poet. I am continually reading poems, poems, poems, and it’s the best thing a novice poet can do. You need to become familiar with what has been done, and to thus see what you can learn from those who practiced the art before you, and to understand what contribution you can make to the art form. In an interview published in the Winnipeg literary magazine CV2 in Spring 2008, I said:
Musicians and wannabe musicians listen to music all the time, seeing what riffs to emulate, steal and avoid. These people buy or otherwise acquire recordings endlessly, and are forever going to clubs and concerts to observe and listen. Artists and wannabe artists of every type (painting, clay, fine woodworking, etc.) look at examples of their art all the time, going to galleries and artist’s talks, looking at photos in exhibit catalogues and books. Journeyed tradesmen and tradeswomen constantly observe how other craftspeople practice their trade, again looking for ideas to adapt, avoid or adopt. As Lew Welch says in his poem “Philosophy” from Course College (1968): “The great Winemaster is almost a / magician to the bulk of his Tribe, / to his Peers he is only accurate.” You need to steadily read other people’s poems in literary magazines, individual volumes, and selected and collected works. You need to be reading poems all the time, the way a superb ball player is forever noodling around with a ball, or a great guitarist is forever noodling around with her or his instrument.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
As I mention above, when I was in high school, Earle Birney gave a detailed account to an auditorium full of Vancouver high school students about how he constructed one of his poems, “Aluroid,” from the poem-triggering moment (watching a cat stalk wrens) to finished artifact. From this presentation I began to understand that how I said what I wanted to say could greatly affect a reader’s or listener’s reception of the chosen content of my poems.