thecanadaproject interviews

thecanadaproject interviews Kathryn Mockler, Part 2

Part 2 of my interview with Kathryn Mockler, author of Onion Man, The Purpose Pitch, and The Saddest Place on Earth:


About Onion Man and The Purpose Pitch

RS: …when writing your poetry, and in particular, when writing Onion Man and The Purpose Pitch, were there any events, moments in Canadian/world history, local politics, or your personal life that acted as pivots or founts, anvils or doors? (this is one of my ‘standard’ canadaproject questions)…always intrigued how much/or, how little, writers seek/engage with The Outside, when writing poetry…Thoughts?

Onion ManKM: Onion Man (Tightrope) is a semi-autobiographical story about a summer I worked at a corn-canning factory with my boyfriend. Some of the story is fictional but many of the relationships in the story such as the narrator’s relationship with her alcoholic mother and her grandparents are based on my personal experience.

My second poetry collection The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books), was a response to the absurdity that resulted in American politics after 911 and during the Iraq War. Many of the poems follow the structure that Donald Rumsfeld laid out for his press secretary on how to deal with the media, he said: ‘Begin with an illogical premise and proceed perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion…They [the media] do it all the time.’

Much of The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press) was written last summer when I was feeling particularly hopeless about the state of the world and the Harper government. I sort of lost all hope and wrote frantically for a month or so and the result was this book.

RS: …what can you/would you share about the titles of your three poetry books and how they came to? How easy/difficult are titles for you? For individual poems, for poems in a series, for book collections?

KM: Often I read through the manuscript or a poem after it’s written looking for a title. I normally don’t agonize over titles. They usually come pretty quickly.

Onion Man used to be called Pillsbury Factory, and I really didn’t like that title so as I was reading through the book, Onion Man (the name the narrator calls the her co-worker who eats raw onions at lunch), jumped out at me.

The Saddest Place on Earth is a title from one of the poems in that collection. I thought this title framed the poems as a whole.

The Purpose Pitch
The Purpose Pitch was a little harder to title. The publication of this book came about very quickly, and I basically had a day to pick a title. I actually think the time constraint helped because I’m someone who works well with a deadline. After scanning through the manuscript, I couldn’t find any phrases or lines or poem titles that I wanted to use and so I scanned through my husband’s (David Poolman) artwork looking for a title. One of his drawings was called The Purpose Pitch and since I’m not a baseball fan, he told me what a purpose pitch was—basically a hard and fast ball thrown at the batter in an attempt to intimidate, and we thought that it worked thematically with the poems. I sometimes describe the book as me throwing a purpose pitch at the world—and everyone in it, including myself. David also provided the cover art for the book—actually he’s provided the cover art for all my books which I’m very grateful for.

RS: Conversation a material, as a construct, plays a huge role in both Onion Man and The Purpose Pitch: it is as if the conversation one hears in The Outside, is brought into the poems you create for a variety of artistic purposes. Interested in your thoughts:

KM: Well I have a screenwriting background so a lot of my writing is dialogue driven. I really think I’m a playwright above all else even though I have never written a play. But I seem to write little plays in my poems and my stories are often heavy with dialogue. Sometimes the conversations are overheard and I write them down, and other times the ideas just come out as conversation.

RS: …What’s your response to the following: as I read and re-read The Onion Man and The Purpose Pitch, I wonder if they are volumes one and two of a longer work? Mind you, as a life-long poem chronicler, I tend to read this into much of the work I admire…Thoughts?

KM: In a way they are. I used to say of my second book that the narrator from Onion Man wrote The Saddest Place on Earth. And I could say the same thing about The Purpose Pitch. I think when you grow up in an environment, in my case, in an alcoholic home, where there is instability, you never feel like you are on solid ground, and you are always planning, critiquing, worrying, and anticipating the worst case scenario. I think that experience has framed the way I view the world and the type of things I write.

RS: …in The Purpose Pitch, in the middle of the book, or thereabouts, we find the prose poem, Harper. Have you been asked if this is a “political” poem, and if so, your response? Is it a “political” poem? I put the word inside that cocoon of quotation marks only because I must confess to the heresy that everything to me is politics. Polly-Tics. Your response?

KM: Whenever I read this poem, I tell the audience that I’ve taken the liberty of writing a fake childhood biography of Stephen Harper. The poem is a result of me trying to understand how Harper can behave the way he does. I tried to imagine how he grew up and the dynamics that could lead to him running the country with such disregard for democracy, the environment, science, etc. Yes, it is a political poem.

RS: What texts, images, conversations, gossip, family anecdotes, newscasts, did you read/listen/watch/attend to, when writing Harper? Or did the poem come as if in a Dream?

KM: Many of my poems come from dreams but this one came from rage and despair and frustration.

RS: Have you read John Berryman’s Dream poem sequence? Thoughts in relation to your own poetry in The Purpose Pitch?

KM: No I haven’t read this book but will definitely check it out.

RS:… Ghosts, the spirit world, death, destruction of the planet, these all rise up inside the world of The Purpose Pitch. And there’s a great deal of humour, black, dry, droll. Do you laugh as you write things that might strike you as funny?

KM: Sometimes I laugh as I write things. I don’t like much about this world, but I do really like to laugh. I like things that are funny and I like trying to make people laugh. It’s terrible when you think you’ve written a funny poem and you read it and the audience just stares at you blankly. I once visited a performance coach, and she pointed out that poetry audiences are not expecting to come to a reading to laugh, so you have to give them permission to laugh through your facial expression, tone, body language. That was very helpful.

RS: Do you read the American poet, Dorothea Lasky? If so, thoughts? I read a kinship between your work and hers.

KM: I have not yet read her work. Again will check her out.

RS: Other reviewers have commented on your long poem, “April 30-May 31, 2014” …do you see this poem as a “docu-poem”? Is this poem “political”? What inspired you to write it: content, process, rage, despair, love?

KM: A couple of years ago there were a series of sexual assaults on women in my area of Toronto. When you hear about these things it can put limitations on how you lead your life such as whether or not you’re going to walk home alone or take a cab or have someone pick you up. One day after hearing about a woman who was held against her will for 24 hours in the Toronto area, I googled “a woman was sexually assaulted” and I was struck by the results and decided to capture them in a poem. I would consider it both a “docu-poem” and a political poem.

RS: I’m curious about the poem, Sklyer…based on a popular culture, T.V. character? It’s written as a dramatic monologue.  Do you agree? Have you read Browning’s dramatic monologues? Any comments on the form?

KM: For this poem, I took the comments from a Facebook group called “I hate Slyler White” and formed it into a single paragraph. The piece could be read as a single voice or an amalgamation of voices.

RS: Forgive my ignorance, I don’t watch T.V., don’t have cable, and have lost the thread(s) of pop culture. Your work, your social media presence, is rather the opposite. Comments?

KM: I don’t feel particularly in the know pop-culture-wise. I don’t watch The Bachelorette, for instance, but I did have a secret obsession with Sister Wives when we still had cable. I’m online a lot and I pick up things there and then I’m around students so I get some pop culture info from them. When I talk to students it makes me feel so out of touch. It’s hard to keep on top of things because there’s so much content, so I just follow a few things I’m interested in. Right now it’s the TV show Nashville which I’ve just discovered and I’m totally obsessed with. Roxane Gay is a writer who I’m in awe of because of her ability to keep on top of pop culture, news, her own writing, reviewing, teaching, and editing.

RS: Several years ago, I heard Canadian poet Annharte speak about how women poets should at least once: embrace, write, write about, include the word, cunt. Thoughts, comments?

KM: I like the word cunt. I don’t like it used against me, but I think it is one of those words that has a lot of power and reclaiming it is not a bad thing. I love Annharte’s writing.

RS: Can you share a bit more about the creative process involved in collaborating in the poem-play from which you excerpted, A Conspiracy to Harm in The Purpose Pitch? The form of the poem-play has always appealed to me as it goes to my life-long quest, when does the poem begin. Any thoughts?

This past year I was involved in a pipeline protest project called Plays vs. Pipelines which opposes the Northern Gateway pipeline. Between October 1, 2015 and June 20, 2015, participants wrote plays relay-style that responded to the pipeline or to the other plays. A Conspiracy to Harm was one of the plays that I wrote for that project, and I thought it fit well with the theme of my book so I included it.

RS: How long did you spend arranging the parts that comprise The Purpose Pitch? Did you and your editor work out the sequence of poems, or was the sequence integral to the genesis of the work?

KM: I’ve started using a program called Scrivener which helped with the process of writing and organizing the manuscript. The program makes it easy visualize it as a whole and to edit and move the different poems around. Consequently the ordering process felt a little painless. Stuart Ross, my editor, suggested I write a few more “World” poems and scatter them throughout the collection. I thought this was a great idea, and I’m pleased with how they are arranged in the book.

RS: I love the World poem series and the way the World poems, in the book, punctuate its other parts. Comments?  You end the book with two singularly lovely/hard-edged poems, that at once entrance and disturb: Bee and Bird. Please discuss.

KM: I think “Bird” kind of sums up the themes in the book so I decided to end with that one. Not sure why I stuck Bee second to last…

Stay tuned for part 3 of this 4-part interview with Kathryn Mockler.

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