Stapleton, what’s currently your biggest dream (goal)? Do you intend to become a great poet?
I would imagine most writers (and artists) aspire to “greatness,” whatever that means for them! It’s hard to say exactly what that means for me; there is always a tension between dreaming big and being realistic. I already feel like I have met many goals and achieved many dreams that a year ago I had not. As I write this, it is March 2020, and in March 2019 I was published for the first time in The Mark Literary Review, with a poem, “Never,” which I’d written a year before that. Simply being published was a huge thrill for me, and I am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to be published several times since then. I’m also a Regular Contributor at Headline Poetry and Press, which is such an honour and really exciting for me also. A year ago, I had never let anyone read any of my poems, and now I am a published poet!
Of course, you always want to go somewhere higher with it, and I’m still figuring out where that higher place should be. Publishing is complicated and not at all what I imagined it would be when I was a kid dreaming abstractly of fame and fortune. Someday, I would like to publish full-length books, and I would like those books to be bought—and, more importantly, read.
So, to answer your question, yes, I want to be a “great” poet, because everyone wants to be “great,” but for me, “great” doesn’t mean something much more substantial than that I want people to read my work, and I want people to like what they read. I want to improve my writing as I go along, and be able to look back on my earlier work someday, both proud of the work and proud of how far I’ve come along since then.
You told me before that you’ve not written (published?) any short stories. Do you think you might one day write a short story or even a novel? How many novels do you read per year?
Yes, I would really like to publish short stories someday—I only have two that I’ve been submitting, and they’ve not found homes anywhere yet, but I’ll keep looking. I haven’t written any short fiction in a while, but I would like to get back into it eventually. I think as a reader I’ve always read more fiction than anything else, but it’s daunting to approach it as a writer. A poem is such a small thing, a nugget of thought and emotion, whereas a short story needs more flesh on it, more structure. A poem does not always have to tell a coherent narrative, it does not always have to go somewhere. A story, usually, will go somewhere, and that can be hard if you don’t know where you want to go!
As to writing a novel, that is also a dream of mine, but I don’t see it happening soon. If you need to have a lot of material and a strong, expansive vision to write a short story, I can only imagine how much you need to write a novel. Poetry you can chip away at, whereas a novel demands that you plunge right in. I have outlined many novel ideas over the years, and written the first 2 chapters of a few dozen novels that I still have saved somewhere, but at this point in my life, I don’t see myself becoming a novelist any time soon.
In an average year, I read about 60 books, but they are never all novels. I try to balance my reading diet between fiction, nonfiction and poetry. However, like many people, I read far more novels than anything else—most poetry books and nonfiction books are not page-turners (there are exceptions! I read both Sy Montgomery’s “The Soul of an Octopus” and Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli’s “Rom Com” in less than 48 hours). In 2019, 32 of the 61 books I read were novels. In 2018, 39 of the 62 were novels.
What led you to reading and writing poems? I bet there’s an interesting story (or I’d better say history) here to tell us.
I’ve written some amount of poetry ever since I was a small child. I always enjoyed writing little stories or keeping a journal, and sometimes I experimented with form. But our literary scene tends to be narrative-centric (and even fiction-centric), so as a child, and even later in life, I read very little poetry. Other than Shel Silverstein and nursery rhymes, most of my early literary diet was fiction. Still, sometimes you’d read a little poetry, and get in the mood, and want to experiment with it. Most of my friends had at least one period of their childhood where they found out about haikus and were challenging themselves to write them. Counting syllables was more of a game than an artistic practice, and sometimes finding rhymes felt like a game, too, but I had a lot of bookish friends and in elementary school, we were always writing silly little poems and exchanging them.
I started writing poetry a bit more seriously when I was 11 or 12, and submitting it for feedback on a forum website for young writers. I don’t have copies of many of those poems anymore and I doubt they were very good, but I got a lot of satisfaction from reading them and from knowing that people read them. I got too self-conscious to keep going with that as I entered my teen years, but kept writing poems on occasion, which I would usually only copy out into my diary.
Towards the end of high school, I decided I ought to be collecting my poetry in one book, and I bought a notebook specifically for that purpose. I filled a notebook and then half of another one before I decided to digitize my growing collection. As it grew, I realized that it formed a sort of narrative of my emotional life over the past few years, and I decided to organize and finish a whole “collection” of all the poems I wrote while I was in university. By that time, I was writing poetry more frequently, partially for the satisfaction, and partially because it was such a useful way to unpack and creatively interpret my own feelings. Besides, a poem could be shorter (and much less logical) than an entire diary entry. Poems gave me license to explore my feelings in non-linear, nonsensical ways, which was helpful when those feelings didn’t seem to make much sense.
Would you please share one of your best poems with us? And would you please explain what it’s exactly about? (for the readers like me who aren’t that good at comprehending poems!)
I don’t like to over-explain what a poem is about; I always feel that it should be able to speak for itself. A poem can be interpreted different ways by different people, and some people will read in a meaning that the poet didn’t intend at all. I think that’s part of what makes poetry great! I always think of my dad telling me about Bob Dylan lyrics (he’s a big Bob Dylan fan, but not really a reader of poetry). He tells me that some people have spent years studying, interpreting and theorizing about some of the more cryptic lyrics, and coming up with various answers as to what these songs are about. Dylan, my dad would say, when asked about the same song, would often shrug and say that the words just sounded nice together. Sometimes we make something without fully understanding it, or we make something with one understanding, and something completely different comes out.
I’ve often experienced that with my own work, setting out to write about one person or one thing, and then going back and seeing that the poem sounds like it’s about something else entirely.
One poem that I have written that I think needs very little explanation is “Tenants,” which you can read on Headline Poetry and Press’s website. This poem came about based on something I said as a joke to some university friends. We were arguing about how many people someone can really love: is it possible to love two or more people the same amount? How many people are we capable of loving? And how many things can we love? Isn’t there a limit?
I had been arguing on the side of loving more—that it is possible to be in love with more than one person, that you can have twenty best friends, or one hundred favourite movies, without putting them into a hierarchy. The way I tried to say this—it is likely that I had been drinking when I said it—was, “the heart is a stretchy box!” My roommate thought this quote was so funny that she wrote it in chalk on our brick wall and it stayed up for the rest of the time we lived in that apartment. I would often look at that quote as I ate my breakfast in the morning. I know she’d written it to make fun of me, but I continued to think it was true. “Tenants” is about that capacity for love. The heart is stretchy, even when it doesn’t want to be.
What makes a poem outstanding? And how do you know that the poem you’ve written is complete and ready to be published?
How do I know when a poem is ready? I don’t. I just cross my fingers and put it out there. Maybe a year later I’ll read it and realize it needs fixing. Sometimes I’ll fix a poem even after it’s been published.
As to what makes a poem outstanding, I have no idea. You know it when you see it. And not everyone will see it. Sometimes I’ll read a poem that’s famous or much beloved and not like it at all, and sometimes I’ll read a poem many consider mediocre and think, what are they talking about? This gave me goosebumps! I’m sure this is something you’ve experienced with all kinds of art.
There are a lot of theories out there about what art is, and what makes art good. I know a lot of people have really strong opinions about that sort of thing, and I don’t wish to step on any philosophical toes. For me, I just think that art is good if it can find an audience that it resonates with, even if that audience is just one person. If even one person genuinely likes or feels a connection to a poem, then that poem is good for that one person, and it’s a good poem. It can be so hard to say what makes a poem good, or what makes anything good quality, so I have to stick with my initial, vague response: you know it when you see it.
You’re a Canadian writer (poet). What distinguishes a Canadian poet from the poets from other English-speaking countries (especially the U.S.)?
There is a big field of study on what makes CanLit different and unique. I know a lot of smarter, better-read writers than me have weighed in on this. I had a literature professor once argue that what makes Canadian Lit is a quality of “nordicity,” which means that the direction of contemplation is always north (in American Lit, by contrast, they are always looking West). The concept was appealing in context, because it is true that the North as an idea is thrilling and has captured the imagination of many Canadian writers since Canadians started writing. However, having a cardinal direction as the basis for a national literature, especially if that nation has a settler colonial history like Canada does, has a problematic tone to it, and I don’t think we should blindly encourage that kind of thinking. The North, like the West, are not concepts, they’re real places. They’re not just there for our contemplation; they also have something to say.
Many American writers have looked West, and told history in terms of a moving frontier. But what of the people who were already living in the West? And what of the people who live there now? Where is the Westerner to look? I believe that in literature of the American west, you can see this tension and this uncertainty a lot—we got here, now what? You see that sense of uneasiness and listlessness. For me, I always think of the scene in the movie Lady Bird where the protagonist argues with her mother that real artists cannot live in California, that it is a cultural backwater, and she needs to move to the East Coast in order to grow creatively—which always strikes me as sad and funny as she and her mother have just finished listening to The Grapes of Wrath on audiobook. They were both clearly deeply moved by the story, which is often lauded as THE work of California literature, and sometimes as THE Great American Novel—and yet Lady Bird still believes that California is no place for a writer or an artist (and maybe she’s right—John Steinbeck himself died in New York City, far from the land that inspired most of his work).
I want to avoid the mentality of a frontier in my definition of CanLit, too. This problem of looking West also exists in Canadian Lit, but we have historically looked North as well as West, and looking North also has its problems. What of the people who already lived in the North? What of the people who live there now? What of the people who live in the South and aren’t likely to be going up the country anytime soon? The North is not just a symbol or a concept, a white snowy emptiness that reminds us of the blank page, as my professor had said. The North is a real place, with real people living there who have real issues and real stories to tell. The North American literary canon has a habit of wanting to shoot for the horizon, of wanting to fill the whole continent. Instead of looking off to the horizon and letting our imaginations soar into unknown spaces, why not tell the story that’s right in front of us? Why not admit that Canada (or the United States) is not perpetually over there, over there, over there? What if we’re already here? We should not see the North as a ghost lurking on the edge of all Canadian writing, just as we shouldn’t see the West as this ghostly idea that haunts American writing. Westerners and Northerners are both writing, too. They are not ghosts.
So, what makes Canadian literature Canadian? Personally, I think nothing does. Canadian literature could be anything written by any person who was born Canadian, became Canadian or was in Canada only a short time. Canadian literature could be set in Canada, or it could be set elsewhere. And it could look like anything. And maybe that’s what makes it Canadian, because Canada would not be itself without all the different voices, and types of voices, that are found inside it (or are found outside it but call back to it from time to time). There is no one Canadian voice– and thank God for that!
Would you please name three of the best female Canadian poets? And if it’s possible, would you please share one of their best works with us?
I would not pretend to be well-read when it comes to Canadian women poets, but I’ll let you know three that I’ve been reading and loving recently: Karen Solie, Dina Del Bucchia and Rita Bouvier. I would never be able to name the three best poets in any category, and I don’t believe I should have to—as I said above, the heart is a stretchy box, and we can all love many poets. These are just three I’ve read recently that really resonated with me. One poem I particularly recommend is Solie’s “Sturgeon,” an environmental poem that always comes back to me when I’m wallowing in climate despair.
Solie’s poems are often environmental, but also very tied up in the idea and the disillusionment of Western identity, as I’ve been talking about. I find that her poetry either punches me in the gut or goes right over my head.
Del Bucchia’s poetry (I’ve only read one book of hers, Rom Com) makes me laugh and cry all at once. It was like reading your best friends diary– but you think she wouldn’t be mad. After all, you were right there with her for the stuff she’s describing, it’s your life too! Her poems made me think about movies as they intersect, and don’t intersect, with our real lives.
Bouvier’s poems are full of powerful images of both urban spaces and natural landscapes, and they’re saturated in both wistfulness and empathy. I feel a lump rise in my throat when I read her. Her poems feel both small, local and intimate, but grand enough to encompass the whole world. I recently read her collection nakamowin’sa for the seasons and I would heartily recommend it.
Do you think writing poems is something learnable (teachable)? Did you attend any classes to learn how to write poems?
That’s hard to say. I believe that all skills are a little bit learnable and a little bit dependent on talent. It’s not always easy to tell, however, how much is learned and how much is natural aptitude.
Take language learning. If 10 randomly selected kids of the same age took the same language class with the same teacher, did the same homework and took the same tests, they would likely all come out with a similar level of proficiency (assuming they all started at absolute beginner level). Sure, some students will apply themselves harder than others, and some people have a knack for languages while some struggle. But if all 10 students work similarly hard, and the teacher is equally attentive to all, it is likely that they will all speak at a similar level of proficiency when the course is over. Enough to move up a grade level, anyways.
However, if you taught the same kids how to sing, or how to dance ballet, or how to run track and field, I don’t think you would see the same equality in the results. All of these skills have to be coached and can be honed and developed, but some people are naturally more coordinated, faster, or better singers than others. Even someone who practices tirelessly might never be as fast as another teammate who, for example, is a foot and a half taller. I know for a fact that, no matter how much I try, my toes will never hold me on a point. And as far as I know, there’s no cure for being tone-deaf.
I don’t know which category poetry would be in. I’m tempted to say the latter, but I think in this case, there is something more important than either teaching or talent: desire. You have to want to write poetry. It’s not something with an end goal or a high payoff, unless you feel driven to do it. I think that you could take a class in poetry writing and it would help you hone your craft a lot, but you would have to already have a craft or have the desire for craft in you. One poetry seminar will not produce 10 equally skilled poets. Instead, I think it will turn out 10 people who know whether or not they want to be a poet with more certainty.
I have never taken a poetry writing class, and I would like to, because it’s good to learn and hone your craft, but I don’t think a teacher could make you into a poet. And, I think that if you are really set on being a poet, there’s only so much a teacher could do to help you.
I’m sure you have been in love once, twice, or even more. As a poet, do you think ‘pain’ is an entangled part of love or is it something we humans have attached to it artificially?
I would refer you back to my idea that the heart is a stretchy box. A lot of stuff can fit inside the heart, but your heart doesn’t always like to stretch. Equally, sometimes your heart is all stretched to capacity but there isn’t a lot to put in there at the time. Both over-fullness and emptiness can be painful, but I think the heart is resilient. Stretchiness has its downsides, but we should be glad it’s not a stiff, unyielding box, or a brittle box. Love will always hurt sometimes, and I don’t think that’s just something poets made up. So no, I don’t think that the entanglement of love and pain is arbitrary, although ideally there should be more joy in love than there is pain– but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t love.
And my last question is about the moments when you feel lonely. How do you describe loneliness and what do you typically do in those moments of despondency? Have you ever written a poem about loneliness?
Of course I’ve experienced loneliness! Who hasn’t? I tend to enjoy alone time and self-directed activities, so loneliness doesn’t always get me down like it does some others, but of course we all feel lonely sometimes in a way we don’t enjoy.
Again, I think my poem “Tenants” could be about loneliness, sometimes when you’re literally alone and sometimes when you’re in a crowd, about feeling lonely even when you have love in your life, because it’s not always the exact kind of love you want the most. My poems “Ephesus” and “Ruth,” published in Amethyst Review, are about loneliness more explicitly, the kind of loneliness we feel when love is lost. “Ephesus,” however, is about taking pride in the independence of loneliness, about respecting loneliness, whereas Ruth is a bit more mournful.
What do we do when we feel lonely? There are a million answers to this question that are more eloquent than whatever I can say now. I suppose the only summation I can provide of what I consider the best of these answers is that we must remember that we are never really alone. Like I said in “Tenants,” there is always somebody to love, and always somebody who loves you, or could come to love you. It’s not always the love we crave, but some days you have to make do and be grateful for the love and the companionship you can get. However, more to the theme of “Ephesus,” sometimes loneliness is noble, not to be pitied. Sometimes it is necessary and even better to strike out on your own, even if it would be easier to have a hand to hold.
I’ve got some other poems about loneliness that I haven’t found a home for yet, but you can certainly look out for them sometime. I don’t expect loneliness to stop being a part of my life anytime soon, and I’ll certainly continue to write about it.