Kathryn Mockler is a writer, screenwriter, and poet. She is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, 2015), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her BA in Honours English and Creative Writing from Concordia University.
On Genre & Literature
RS: You write/create in multiple genres: poetry, short story, film, reviews, …can you speak to what that’s like? Do you inhabit different, shall we say, “brain-modes” for each genre? What’s it like writing a book of poems as opposed to write for film; or, writing short stories, narrative as distinct from poetry?
KM: I started writing at Concordia University when I was an undergraduate and I took classes in poetry, short fiction, and screenwriting. At UBC where I did my MFA, we had to write in at least three genres, and I’ve just always kept it up. There are times when I focus on one genre. Between 1999 and 2006, I focused very heavily on screenwriting but still managed to pick away at poetry and for the last five or six years, my attention has been on poetry and short fiction, but I still have two feature film projects on the go.
I don’t think I use different brain modes. Many people are surprised when I say how much poetry has in common with film. Both are visual genres and often rely on image and concise language.
My brain doesn’t switch modes but my reading does. I read in whatever genre I’m about to write in. And I read writers who I think will influence a particular tone.
RS: Do you write works in progress in multiple genres/disciplines all at the same time or sequentially? Do you divide up your writing time by genre? I’m very interested in exploring whether there is a different habitation, if you will, when writing poetry as opposed to prose? The questions, When does a poem begin?—would appear to be one of the most searching questions one might encounter as it leads to questions of what is poetry, when does something “count” as poetry? Thoughts?
KM: For me the idea often dictates the genre. Sometimes I write something and I’m not even sure what the genre is, and frankly I don’t really care—often my writing could be categorized as either micro fiction or poetry or even short plays. Several of my short films and video projects started out as poems. I like the flexibility that working in different genres allows me, and I like challenging the boundaries of genre.
Usually I write something and worry about the category later. Right now I’m working on a long on-going project called Make Her Look Happy that doesn’t appear to have any kind of genre. It’s part fiction, autobiography, poetry, dialogue. I don’t know what the hell it is, but it’s fun to figure it out.
I’m asked questions about genre a lot. I’m asked what makes my work poetry or what makes a poem a poem. I teach creative writing and this is something I’m supposed to know the answer to. In my own writing, I often don’t decide if something is poetry or short fiction until I’m sending it out for publication so how can I advise writers new to creative writing about genre? I tell my students that the line is often blurred—especially between prose poetry and micro fiction. Micro fiction forces prose readers to read fiction like poetry and prose poems force poetry readers to read poems like stories. In some ways, we categorize for the reader. If we tell the reader that something is a poem, then there is an expectation to read the piece like a poem—to pay attention to not just the story or theme or characters but also the form, the lines, the images, the sound. Anne Boyer’s latest book, Garments Against Women, is categorized as “prose works” but I read it like it’s poetry. I reread lines and appreciate the way she uses language and image. Lydia Davis is another prose writer who I read like a poet. And many of her works have been published as poetry.
Some people feel that my first book Onion Man reads like a novel or poem novel. In the early days of writing it, I got a lot of advice to turn it into a novel, and when I tried to do that something didn’t work, and it almost destroyed the whole project. I went back to it years later and realized, no, this is a poem and I’m keeping it a poem.
I think I’m drawn to poetry or to categorize my work as poetry because there’s an opportunity to experiment. No one expects poetry to make money, so there is much more room for risk than there is, say, for the novelist who is trying to get an agent and a big publishing deal.
RS: What are your thoughts on the different modes, styles, and disciplines of poetry as it is written in English in Canada today?
KM: There’ a lot of exciting writing coming out of Canada today, and I have felt fortunate to be able to publish some of it in The Rusty Toque.
As I said earlier, I was completely out of the poetry world for a number a years, so I had to reintroduce myself to what was going on in the contemporary scene. Coming back to poetry, this time, with the internet around changed the way I read, who I read, and how much I read. I became acquainted with online magazines like La Petite Zine and Diagram and Sina Queyras’s blog Lemon Hound, and I discovered The Poetry Foundation and the podcast Poem Talk hosted by Al Filreis. My reintroduction to poetry came about at a time when social media was starting to take hold. It was exciting to find a community of poets online, and I got to know about poets and writers who I otherwise would not have been introduced to.
I think Canadian poetry has benefited enormously from the internet to the extent that poets and especially those new to poetry have such easy access to international writing. Reading widely and diversely affects how we write. Contemporary Canadian poetry doesn’t seem quite as insular as it once did with the same two or three poets being revered and referenced over and over. There seems to be an openness and range of styles and subjects. Poets such as Jacob Wren, Aisha Sasha John, Souvankam Thammavongsa, Catherine Graham, Stuart Ross, Jordan Abel, Kim Fu, and Jonathan Ball are just a few that come to mind.
RS: As a reviewer and editor, what strikes you most about what you read, when reviewing the work of others and/or when reading submissions? How do you decide upon The Good as opposed to, well, shall we say, The Not Interesting?
KM: Wow this is a hard question. But what I think it comes down to for me no matter the genre is the element of surprise. For me good writing has something familiar in it and then looks at that familiar thing from an angle or with language or in a voice we wouldn’t expect.
Not interesting for me is a familiar story told in a conventional way…
Stay tuned for part 2 of this 4-part interview with Kathryn Mockler.