The author of three poetry collections and a play, Pembroke native David O’Meara is has added a new accolade to his bio: Griffin Poetry Prize judge. With two other judges — one from the United States and one from England — O’Meara has examined close to 500 books of poetry. He’s also set to teach at the Banff Centre for the Arts this fall. In February, the writer took a break from scheduling Plan 99 readings at The Manx — where he also tends bar — and organizing the new poetry festival, VERSeFest, to chat with rob mclennan about the writing life.
David O’Meara was born in Pembroke, Ontario. He is the author of three collections of poetry, and a play, Disaster. His most recent book is Noble Gas, Penny Black (Brick Books, 2008). His work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including The New Canon (Signal Editions), and The Echoing Years, a co-Irish/Canadian Anthology. He is director of the renowned Plan 99 Reading Series, a founding director of VerseFest, Canada’s International Poetry Festival, and will be poetry instructor at the Banff Centre in September 2012. He continues to tend bar at the Manx Pub in Ottawa.
How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
With a first book you have something on the ground. You have product. And a starting point. Other than that, first books are something to build on, get better at. There’s no end to feeling inadequate. Which might answer the last two questions.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I liked words and how they were put together and the effects they could create. Poetry was the most economical way to do this. Why was I attracted to this? Essence. The distillation process.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Most of my responses are situational, in reaction to something lived, read or told to me. A fact, an experience. Sometimes it’s just a phrase that I can’t shake, that asks to be investigated. Though over time, the work probably reveals a set of obsessions. I hope it does; otherwise I’d be just doing it perform a role, rather than respond fittingly. The current questions are the usual questions: what is meaning and how do we live properly?
What was your reaction when you were first approached to judge the Griffin Prize? Do you think poems can essentially be “judged,” and how do you see the process unfolding? Does “effectiveness” come before or after “purpose”?
Since there’s no application or solicitation for the position, it was a complete surprise. I received an invitation from one of the Trustees by email, made a coffee, then sat there reorganizing the next six months in my head if I should accept. It’s of course an honour to be asked, but meant certain plans— travel, work, my own writing projects — had to be reconsidered in light of the amount of reading involved.
Yes, poems can be judged, though the criteria are vast and subtle. You’re looking for the most potent mix of thought, diction, sound, tone and imagination. There’s no template for a good poem or book. Every book’s success rattles inside the context of its own particular covers. You start reading with your own aesthetic, but have to be respectful of each poet’s style and intention. There are three judges, one from the U.S., one from England, and myself. The decisions have to be unanimous, so the pressure is both on and off simultaneously. Ideally, when poetry is hitting it, categories like purpose and effectiveness are so intertwined that they become subsumed by the art’s entirety.
Exactly how many books are you expecting to judge? Exactly how many are we talking about, here?
The numbers aren’t in yet, but somewhere in the neighbourhood of 450. It’s exciting and daunting. English poetry and translations from the entire planet.
How have your years of organizing and hosting the Plan 99 Reading Series at The Manx Pub helped you through the process of the first and forthcoming second edition of the annual VERSeFest Poetry Festival?
Plan 99 and VERSeFest are very different animals. I’m very proud of the poets and fiction writers who have read at The Manx Pub over the last 12 years (!) on those Saturday afternoons. VERSeFest is a whole other challenge; Plan 99 writ large. Venues, flights, promotion, volunteers, sponsors, paperwork etc. We have an amazing group of directors working on this.
What do you think VERSeFest brings to the city that was otherwise missing? What are the biggest things you see the festival accomplishing?
VERSeFest started as the giant offspring of the various reading series and slam/spoken word events in Ottawa. I think it will become a poetry hub, not just for the city, but for the entire country. We are already international, but will continue to spotlight local and national poets. The festival is unique, bringing the written and spoken word—page and performance—to the same stages. There are exciting new voices alongside acclaimed recording artists, Griffin, Governor General and Pulitzer Prize winners. The energy is palpable. But let the 2012 schedule speak for itself at www.versefest.ca
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Any artist is responsible for addressing the age he/she lives in, making connections to the past, and imagining the future. In a poet’s case, this act is through language. If language becomes fuzzy, then lazy thought follows. If we don’t reinvigorate how we see and describe the world, art’s preoccupation, then one-dimensional ideologies follow; the stock phrase is the tool of every regime. The very act of avoiding cliché, keeping language fresh, sophisticated and subtle, promotes complexity of thought and consequently contributes to a dynamic and tolerant society.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In life: Travel when you’re young.
In writing: “’It is in order to shine sooner that an author refuses to re-write. Despicable. Begin again.” — Albert Camus
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Almost typically, I go for a walk in the a.m., have a coffee, buy some groceries. Then I’m home by 10:30ish, and work through until the late afternoon, Monday to Friday. That’s the ideal. There are always interruptions. Any work that gets done in the evening or on weekends is a gift.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I keep turning to the poem, chipping at it, shifting the words and tone around, trying a different approach to what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. I will do it until something interesting happens. If nothing is, I’m always happy to let it rot on the corner of my desk for days, weeks, or months until I can look at it again in a fresh way. Some take a long time to get back to the centre. So it’s good to have a few things on the go at the same time.
If there was a fire, what’s the first thing you’d grab?
Ach. Uh. Assuming my partner is at work, I’d grab my laptop and the cat under each arm. Then some photos, several pieces of art, a box of letters… You have to remember this is a very slow-moving fire.
David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
All of the above. And architecture. History. Travel. Much of that is reflected in what I write. I’d like to think the wider your knowledge, the more capable you are with making connections, the greater capacity you’ll have for metaphor, the big awareness. I always need to fight my lack of imagination.
What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Somewhere in the answer to this question is a curse, so I’ll decline.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve got a new poetry manuscript on the go for 2013. It needs more work, editing and new poems, which I hope to concentrate on this summer and fall. In the meantime, I’m working on reducing these stacks of poetry collections into a Griffin shortlist.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012) and A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009).
This interview was featured in the April 2012 edition.