by Mike Spry
Damian Rogers is a renaissance woman of ever there was one. She works as the poetry editor at House of Anansi Press; the creative director of Poetry in Voice, a national recitation contest for high-school students founded by Scott Griffin; the literary curator of Jason Collett’s Basement Revue; and the poetry editor at The Walrus; she had a line in the movie High Fidelity and was a member of a cheerleader chorus in the song “Bloodflow” by the band Smog; and contributed lyrics to recordings by both Blue Rodeo and Jason Collett; she has worked as an assistant editor at Poetry Magazine in Chicago, a copy chief for Hearst Publications in New York, and as a freelance books editor for Drag City Records; and her own work has been published by Boston Review, Brick, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, MoonLit, Salt Hill, Hazlitt, and others.
Mike Spry: You had an interesting tweet recently about poets and money and social propriety. What is it about the arts that seemingly allows people to ask about it’s monetization?
Damian Rogers: I think that people who are not happy in their own work are intrigued and occasionally threatened when they see people pursuing what appear to be illogical career paths. On one hand, I find it to be a real failure of the imagination to not realize how many different ways there are to live a stimulating and rewarding life where money isn’t the measuring stick for success. On the other hand, I get it, I like stuff too: a home, nice clothes, books, a sense of security. I remember hearing that the musician Jon Langford told a bunch of graduating high-school students (and I’m paraphrasing) in a commencement speech that “if you do what you want long enough eventually someone will pay you to do it.” And I would add to that, maybe that will be enough to live on, and maybe not. Maybe you do other things for money while keeping the thing you love most at the centre somehow. It’s a constant struggle, but so is life, right? There are a lot of these inspirational addresses on the internet — the keep-moving-closer-to-your-mountain speech by Neil Gaiman is very popular — and I think they are pleasant and reassuring to watch, but to me it’s kind of obvious too. I feel extremely conscious that nothing is secure and so I see no incentive to trade a life that feeds you for a job that could stop feeding you at any moment anyway.
But your real question is about why people feel like they can corner poets (or musicians, or painters, or mimes) and grill them about their finances when generally it’s not socially acceptable to walk up to a stranger and ask them how much they made last year. When I made a crack about that on Twitter, I was thinking of an exchange with a guy buying my book after a reading I gave in Ottawa. He wasn’t being a dick, I think he was being playful and kind of wry, but thinking about it later and how he essentially interrogated me about how many books I hoped to sell, I thought, I should have playfully bantered back with a request to see his most recent tax return. It was revealing how many writers responded to that tweet with a sense of recognition. To be fair, people are naturally curious about things they don’t understand (the mechanics of publishing, etc.), but then I have also encountered palpable resentment coming from those who felt they didn’t have the luxury to choose a life in the arts. That’s a story I told myself too, as I had to put myself through university and figure out how to support myself at 17. For me it wasn’t a question of luxury — I tried to do other things with my life and it nearly killed me. I’d rather be alive than own a car.
MS: First of all, what kind of awesome high school has Jon Langford for a commencement speech? Second, I wonder, is there a kind of joy in the struggle and counter culture that somehow perpetuates the work. And by that I mean, it’s hard to get a book, it’s hard to get published, it’s hard to work in writing and the arts. It’s not the life many would choose. Are those challenges something we see in writing? In your writing?
DR: I think this was an awesome high school in Chicago, but I’m not sure. Travis Good from The Sadies told me about seeing it online, but I was never able to find it. Okay, I just found it. It was not a high school, but the University of Illinois Chicago. I’m not done watching it (digital world!), but this sentence is perfect: “There are people out there who will only judge your work and your ideas and your worth by how much money you can make them.”
Something I remember hearing repeated in books, movies, and anecdotes when I was young was the story of the young writer (or musician/painter/mime) who approached the grumpy, jaded, but successful writer (musician/painter/mime) and asked “how do I know if I can do this?” And the semi-contemptuous answer was always, “If there’s anything else you can do, do that.” I found that very unhelpful when I was young and unsure, but I think I understand the spirit of that response better now. There is no reason to pursue this kind of life unless you can live in the work. If you imagine yourself living in what you think are the goodies that come with success, then forget it. Because the trappings are unreliable — they come and go, and often when they come, they aren’t how you imagined they might be. Every good thing has some invisible weird thing stuck to the back of it. So if you just love the idea of being a successful writer surrounded by people blowing smoke up your ass, forget it. You have to be able to live in your work, because it really is all you can count on. I’ve been watching musicians peak and fade and return over the years and the ones I admire most keep working through it, keep making the next record, keep playing the next show. And poetry… I mean, even the “top” is not very high up in terms of how our culture measures success. The most you can get isn’t very much, at least not if it’s the goodies you’re after. Make sure that the thing you want to do is work. What I’ve learned, personally, is that I can’t do anything else. I’ve tried, and every other thing I’ve ever tried to do felt like a lie and not to put too fine a point on it, but a lie that was going to kill me. This is all I can do and stay sane. Do I expect to make a living selling books of poems? No. But I believe if I keep this practice in the centre of my life, I can hustle out a living in one way or another around it, and if I’m lucky, I’ll keep getting better. The most successful writers I know are working constantly. Constantly. Underground or overground, it’s work. I think the joy is there — in constant connection with this life force. What did Wallace Stevens call it — the interior paramour. And I remember reading a quote from William S. Burroughs that a writer had to be someone who could stare at the wall for hours. I read that in high school, years and years before I had the inner strength to write anything of any value, and I thought, I think I actually know what he’s talking about. There’s so much joy in making something out of nothing. I mean, literally going into the void and pulling something out. But that has to be what you want to do with your time. I always go back to the music world for models — do you want to be the person you think has all the power in the room? Or do you want to be in constant communication with the real power in the room, to lose yourself in the music itself? Not the same thing.
DR: It’s incredibly challenging to balance everything. I’m constantly jumping among different responsibilities and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed when my attention is urgently needed in several areas at once. But I’m incredibly lucky, because I love all the work I do, and I learn from all of the work I do. And the breaks I take to focus on my own writing tend to also help me perform better in my paid work, because most of the paid work I do comes down to working with other artists in one way or another. There are times in the year when I get a little rundown, but ultimately, I’m grateful. The majority of my work is itself quite creative, and I genuinely enjoy supporting other artists. Sometimes I spread myself too thin, sometimes I wonder if I don’t take on certain side projects as a means to avoid my own creative work, and so I try to be mindful about that and say no when I need to say no.
MS: Was saying “no” something you had to work on? There’s a lot of pressure in the arts to say “yes”.
DR: I’ve retreated somewhat from the social sphere of the literary world. Part of this is that I can’t afford to hire a sitter unless I’m going out to work, so if my husband’s on the road (which he often is), it’s just not possible for me to show up outside my house at night. Also, I’m exhausted. The hardest thing for me is missing people who come through town — Anselm Berrigan was just in town and I had every intention of going to see his two readings and then I couldn’t swing the childcare at the last minute. So that’s disappointing. But it also means that I have a little buffer from some of that pressure to be everywhere all the time. And for the most part, it’s pretty obvious to most people that I’m overextended. Sometimes a single, childless man complains to me about how busy he is and I can’t help it, I just laugh. There’s probably more social pressure on women to say yes — especially with so-called “soft labour,” the kind of work that is generally underpaid and underappreciated and takes a toll on our creative lives. I still say yes to too much, because I do get excited about things. The people who don’t understand tend to be people well outside the professional sphere, people who think it’s not a huge imposition to ask me to read their work and tell them what I think. I’ve had some uncomfortable email exchanges with friends of the family. They don’t realize they’re asking me to work for free and that it’s not fair to the people who are waiting for me to read and respond to their manuscripts under consideration at Anansi or The Walrus. The worst is when people say, “I just want to know if it’s any good…” But they don’t know it’s the worst — if you’ve started writing and you don’t know a thing about contemporary publishing and you meet someone who has published and works as an editor, of course you think, Here’s my chance! But I can’t take that on. There’s so much emotional weight to it, and there’s no generosity of spirit in that kind of demand on another human intelligence. “Tell me if I’m good.” And not to keep coming back to gender, but I do think women get this more than men.
MS: As I began this interview, I was sitting in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the night of the Giller Prize presentation. Amherst is filled with writers, aspiring and accomplished. People invested in literature. I would bet that 95% of them don’t what the Giller is. You’re an American living in Canada, so I thought you may have an interesting perspective on whether or not CanLit’s visibility in the US is a problem.
DR: Well, you’re talking to a poet, so the entire notion of larger visibility is a bit of a shadowy realm. Many people in Canada who dutifully buy the Giller-winning novel every year have never heard of the Griffin Poetry Prize, its parallel in the poetry world. Is that a problem? Maybe, but as a rule, I don’t think it’s healthy to wring my hands about who isn’t paying attention to me; no one owes me her attention. There is great writing happening in this country that isn’t being read in Amherst but there is great writing happening in Amherst that isn’t being read in New York. Many of my favorite writers or bands or filmmakers have had relatively small audiences. I spend a lot of time in the States still, and I have to say that I think Canadian artists are so lucky to live in this culture that values the arts as part of its national identity. That creates a strong, varied, and incredibly rich atmosphere to work within and I’m grateful to be included in it. It would be great if a writer’s successes here translated into international recognition; I think this can happen, but I don’t think we should expect it in all cases.
MS: I love Poetry in Voice, the whole idea behind it. It makes me think about how rhyme and poetry are so important to our childhoods, our young schooling, and then somewhere along the lines it disappears. Where does it go?
DR: Does it disappear? I feel it’s still all in there, even if it’s dormant. We play with language all the time, I think. Even social media is filled with people messing around with how language sounds, consciously or not. But it’s true that our awareness of language recedes, especially for people who don’t grow up to obsess over things like line breaks and sentence structure. I think for those who have kids, the act of reading stories aloud brings it back, and I think in some ways that this is part of why people find this time of childrearing so magical. It’s a return to that early experience of language as a system of sound patterns.
Poetry In Voice is so much fun to work on, and it’s such a rewarding experience to see high-school students develop these deep relationships with the poems they memorize. My absolute favourite thing is when I’m able to introduce a finalist to the poet who wrote one of the poems the student is reciting. That’s so satisfying, connecting young readers to living poets who then get to hear their poems recited in another voice. A voice of the future! Most of these students will not go on to become poets themselves, but their connection to the poems they memorize lives on inside them forever, and I believe in that.
MS: What’s the most surprised you’ve been at a PiV event. I have visions of these Susan Boyle-like moments when a kid unexpectedly kills on a Yeats poem.
DR: I think the most surprising thing for me has been how often the younger students have dominated. The competition is open to students from Grade 9 up to Grade 12 and to CEGEP students in Quebec, so it can be a pretty wide range of ages, and I’m fascinated by the fact that more than once we’ve seen one of the youngest competitors beat out much more mature students. I’ve also just been blown away by the confidence and joy in their selections. Some of my favourite moments have been hearing teenagers reciting poems by Alice Notley or Jerome Rothenberg, poems they probably wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for the competition. Last year’s champion in the English stream was Olivia Perry, a Grade 10 student from Lark Harbour, Newfoundland, who nailed an excerpt from Anne Carson’s Red Doc>. I’m also impressed by the students who are as serious about poetry as they are about the performance of it — I loved Kiera Sandrock’s recitation of “Fire Watch” by Ken Babstock. There’s a depth to her understanding of that poem that is breathtaking and even a little scary.
MS: I read Dear Leader on my tablet, the first such time I read a book that way. Seemed to work pretty well, especially for poetry. I don’t want to get caught up in a conversation about digital technology vs. lit, but I was wondering, as someone who has witnessed the transition from analog to digital, what you find most interesting about the digitization of literature.
DR: I read in a very desultory way online — taking the train yesterday, I read a piece by Luc Sante about the work of Burroughs on my phone that had been published in the New York Review of Books in 1984 because a link to it appeared in a piece by Rebecca Solnit for Lit Hub that I read because someone had posted it on Facebook. Most of my digital reading habits follow these kinds of leapfrogging lines, so I’m reading in an unplanned, associative fashion, which is of course, how we share information now. The word “share” itself has been branded by this digital experience, along with the word “like.” Sometimes I frustrate myself by the amount of time I waste clicking around online, but I’m very happy to have fallen over that Sante survey of Burroughs’ work, which connected back to areas of personal study, and those kinds of discoveries keep me hooked into the feed.
So far I have never read a book on a tablet and I don’t have any digital reading devices (Kobo, whatever). I think they are probably great, but I’m committed to the book as object. I don’t need to keep every book I read, but the ones I do keep, I prefer that they be beautiful objects if possible. Though even the way that I find these objects is influenced by current digital retail options. I spend a lot of time in used book stores, but when I wanted to buy Joan Didion’s The White Album and I didn’t like the new cover design, I went to Abe Books. I started out searching for the hardcover I remembered my friend Brett had on his bookshelf in Chicago, and then I ended up buying a first edition. I believe in the talismanic aura of objects and reading those essays on the paper they were first printed on feels different for me than reading them on a screen; there’s another physical layer to the experience, even though the essays themselves are the same. But maybe this is just the way I participate in capitalism, fetishizing the nostalgia I associate with a niche vintage product. Why pay $16 when I could pay $35? That’s a depressing way of breaking it down, but I recognize the sort of bubble of privilege my taste aspires to place me inside.
I visited Susan Holbrook’s grad class at the University of Windsor this week and I was struck by how one student was arranging her text across the dimensions of the standard 8 ½ by 11–inch paper. We talked a little about how the poems might work in other formats. Now people read on so many differently sized screens, and it’s not just the shape of the page, but the idea of pages themselves that are affected by these shifts in format. What is the role of the delivery system? Is the poem a visual object in the same way as it was in the 20th century if the appearance of that object is unstable? I’m attracted to the oral tradition as it persists in performance, but I’m still so attached to the illusion of materiality that books provide. I’m interested in the ability of certain objects to survive against all odds, even in fragments. It’s interesting, I don’t know where it will lead, other than to further experiments with form, which is what a work of art is always seeking, I think, its own form.
MS: In terms of experimentation, are you surprised there hasn’t been more in terms of digital literature? I recall when digital music started to eat into record sales, and being surprised by the industry’s reaction, which leaned towards litigation and away from ambition. As a writer who is also in publishing, and involved in a variety of projects in the arts, is there a new genre on the way? Like, interactive e-poetry or multimedia novels on a large scale.
DR: I think a lot has happened online that we sort of ignore because it falls under the umbrella of genre fiction or the writing is bad or because we are old and out of touch. (Just implicating myself there.) Fan fiction is one obvious area — I can’t pretend to know anything about what’s going on in this corner, but from what I’ve been told, there are interesting, transgressive, and experimental narrative forms being shared in online communities that fall under this broad category. Poets like Richard Siken have struck a chord with young women on the internet — again, this isn’t my area of expertise, but apparently his (excellent) book Crush has had a whole independent life online over the last decade with young women who vibed with its depiction of homoerotic longing. (I should credit the great Cindy Ma for filling me in on this.) An interesting phenomenon about the digital world is that it does make the underground more accessible and so if you’re interested in something you’ve heard about — some cult film say — you can usually find it online in minutes. The barriers to access have disappeared, but then, so have the rituals of initiation. Ritual is romantic to me, but it’s also a basic human activity that provides context. Maybe I romanticize context.
Again, wading out into territory I know nothing about: I’ve read some compelling descriptions of the avant-art end of the gaming world. A number of musicians and artists have tried to create multimedia interactive digital experiences over the years — The Residents, back in the 90s, I think; Laurie Anderson — but the problem is that these projects seem to date quickly as technology changes so rapidly. I was just remembering the commercial from however-many years ago that the iPhone and the iPod merged — it showed a guy with a cool (but not too cool) haircut walking down the street listening to music and then in this relatively fluid movement he takes a call. I mean, I remember the Walkman, so that my frame of reference. But I remember thinking this new magical phone was such a radical leap forward in gadgetry, and it’s now something that I totally take for granted. How fast did that happen? The iPhone came out in 2007, so that’s well under ten years for an object to go from triggering the shock of the new to being buried under many layers in a landfill. I think it’s hard to make a lasting work of art in these mediums that become outmoded so quickly. No one wants to make an 8-track.
MS: This last book, Dear Leader, is the first (I believe) since you had a child. How, if at all, has motherhood changed your writing?
DR: There are two parts to my answer. Part One: As I type this, I keep looking at the clock. Today is Friday and my son is at daycare. My husband is about to go on tour for the weekend and it’s now 1:00pm and I have to pick up my son at 5:00pm and I won’t have the time to sit down and work again until Monday. So I have to think about all the things I need to do before I leave the house at 4:30pm. I have a lot to do. Way more things to do than I could possibly do in three and a half hours. That’s a snapshot of one change: I have to pay to work now, I have to make arrangements in order to just sit at my desk. That won’t be the case forever, but it’s been the case now for three years and it will be like this for a few years more. So there’s a limit to when I can write and that means I have to be more disciplined. Which isn’t such a bad thing. But I also have to share these windows of time with all of my paying work, and since I have to pay to work, the paying work has priority. So that’s sometimes difficult. There’s never enough time.
Part Two: I am changed internally. The birth of my son coincided with me becoming responsible for my mother’s life, as she has dementia and I am the only child of a single parent. Somehow the effect of living in the middle of a responsibility sandwich after years of being pretty self-absorbed is that I have a sense of what’s at stake. I want to be a better person for my family, and that means following through on what I want for myself. I feel more ambitious in terms of what I expect to accomplish because of all my mother can’t do and for all I hope my son will.
MS: At a panel I moderated in the spring, you were asked about getting paid for work, and you had an interesting answer about journals/mags that don’t pay, in that the relationship between creator and curator is mutually beneficial, and of equal effort. The idea that the non-paying entity is contributing a certain set of skills equal to that of the writer had, oddly, never occurred to me before. You give a lot of time to literature in various ways. What is it about that generosity (yours) that you enjoy?
DR: I have learned so much about what kind of artist I want to be by working with so many different artists over the years. It’s the way I function in community and community has served as a substitute family for me since I left my family of origin many years ago. You were asking about the issues of visibility, and the labour that goes into building and sustaining the grassroots platforms that serve visibility — journals, reading series — needs to be properly valued. It takes a lot of work to gather energy around the arts. But there is also now a business model where institutions make money by providing free content and the (often considerable) profits are not shared with the creators of the product. There’s a difference to me between something like a radio show where a band comes on to promote a new record and distribution models in which artists make next to nothing for their recordings while the corporate bodies controlling the distribution methods thrive. (I see this as something very different from peer sharing over the internet, though that’s hurt my friends’ revenue streams as well.) This is a broken system and it’s related to the fact that culturally we do still value objects over experience. We don’t like to pay for things we can’t hold in our hands. This is why people are now more likely to buy the t-shirt than the record.
MS: We recently had a change in government, and the new administration has a drastically different view of the arts than the previous. What would you like to see in terms of support of the arts from the Trudeau government?
DR: In the last couple weeks, I’ve given readings in Ottawa and Windsor, and in both cases I was invited by a series that’s supported by the Canada Council. I didn’t lose money on these trips and so those grants — which the last government hoped to kill — made it possible for me to go. In both cities, I felt so buoyed by the opportunity to connect to another community and to meet readers I would have otherwise never met. I would love to see more support for artists across the board, as these investments, even when relatively small, are directly reflected in the health of a country’s cultural life. I saw Leonard Cohen receive a fancy award not so long ago and he made a big point to credit a cluster of little $25 Canada Council grants to helping sustain him early in his career. These grants do not just benefit the people who receive the cheques; when a government invests in its citizens, quality of life gets better for everybody.
Originally from the Detroit area, she holds a BA from the University of Michigan and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College in Vermont. Her first book, Paper Radio (ECW Press), was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award and the ReLit Award. Her most recent book, Dear Leader, is from Coach House Books.