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courtesy Derek Beaulieu

Advice for aspiring poets

Q&A with Derek Beaulieu

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Derek Beaulieu is a Canadian poet who has published nine books of poetry. His most recent book Please, No More Poetry was published in February from Wilfred Laurier University Press’s Laurier Poetry Series. Beaulieu is the first poet under 40 to be published as part of the series and the first Albertan. An alumni of the University of Calgary, he worked as a sessional instructor in the U of C English department and currently teaches creative writing, theory and contemporary Canadian literature at Alberta College of Art and Design.

The Gauntlet: You actually have had your own publishing house, Housepress, since 1997. What was your inspiration behind creating your own publisher?

Beaulieu: I started Housepress in 1997, it ran until 2004 and then I folded it into a new press called No Press that has ran from 2004 until the present. The whole idea with both of these presses is to be more involved in the materiality of publishing — what do books actually look like? — and get more involved in the distribution and the community side of publishing. Poets seem to think and writers seem to think that ‘I write a book, I send it to someone else and they do everything else and I get rich.’ It’s kind of like the underwear gnomes on South Park. Step one: steal all the underwear. Step two: mu-ugh?! Step three: strike it rich. Poets seem to have no idea what happens in that middle space but they expect ‘I write poems, I get rich.’ What you really want is a readership, an audience and a discussion. Frankly if you’re in it for the money you’re in it for the wrong reason because writing poetry is basically like knitting doilies — there’s no reason to do this anymore, there’s not an actual payoff — it’s a cultural hobby. Start looking at the forms of production. What kind of pages are they, what size? What shape? What font? And all those things not only will help you edit your own work, shape your own work, as you start seeing it on the page. This is the way of developing an audience. Publish your own thing, see what kind of shape you want it to be in and then hand it out, give it to people and allow that to develop an audience. And look and see how people respond to poetry. They may take it, this thing that you’ve made, when you hand it to them they’ll fold it up and use it as a coaster. Already you know that this is basically the standard reception to poetry, that you are something that you leave drinks upon.

G: You were talking about knitting doilies. In a way it’s a lot like knit-bombing, especially with modern poetry and the way that conceptual writing is distributed.

Beaulieu: Absolutely. I think that knit-bombing is exactly the way you should be approaching your own poetry. Stop trying to fit it into a book or look at publishing in this form or that form, and start distributing by any other means. Absolutely do everything yourself.
The least interesting thing about poetry are books, poets and readings. Do something more interesting.

G: But has it come down to the way poetry is written or the way that it is marketed? For a beginning poet, are there things they can use to get noticed in their writing, instead of focusing on certain genres and styles? Especially when it comes to conceptual writing, it seems that the stranger and more out-there the poetry, the more successful it is determined to be.

Beaulieu: That’s the thing. As I mentioned before, nobody reads poetry as poetry. Poetry has been completely co-opted by movie slogans and Hallmark cards. Poems as we understand them are completely co-opted and completely meaningless. So why write that same way? There’s something weird and strange and passionate about whatever it is you want to write about. You want to write about skydiving? Skydiving has an entire vocabulary of tools and positions and equipment and moves and all these things that you need to know to skydive. I’m willing to bet that all those terms never show up in your average poem. They would make the poem suddenly more radical, more weird, more strange and more in line with your own passion than talking about the beautiful breeze as it goes through your hair.

G: But if you start doing that then you’ve moved towards very specialized language for a specific audience. Most poets coming into the craft seem to want to maximize the audience that they’re going to get by having very broad language.

Beaulieu: There’s no audience to maximize. There’s nobody there. It is completely imaginary. You’re trying to chase the unicorn. People who read poems are other poets
. . . and your mom. What you want to do is treat poetry like it is an artform — which it is. We look at painters, we go to the museum of modern art to see how modern, post-modern, contemporary painters have forwarded the craft.
How have they done something that nobody else has done? How have they challenged how we understand painting, how we understand sculpture, drawing? What have they done that has just blown our minds? We should be training artists, not poets. What can you learn from automotive design or from drafting or from skydiving or from anything else other than poetry? You want to be a good poet? Find something particularly screwy about the world and write about that passionate, strange thing.

G: In a certain way any type of writing, especially poems, but also fiction, essays, articles etc., is inherently political, especially the best ones — in the sense that they’re tackling something in society that the author is trying to make sense of. In order to produce something new that grabs your attention they need to take up a certain angle, an approach to the world or of something going on in the world.

Beaulieu: Any way of looking at language that starts being non-normative, whether it be collage-based, whether it be using plagiarism as a creative force, whether it be cutting and pasting from other means, whether it be stealing text and repackaging them, these are overtly political moves especially when you start looking at how text circulates and the idea of ownership.
That’s one of the shortfalls to me in a lot of cases, that poets are very protective of their own personal output. This is my poem, it came from my beautiful heart and if you steal it, if you circulate it in ways, somehow you’ve offended or you’ve melted my own beautiful little snowflake. They refuse to participate in the most pervasive medium around and that’s the Internet. Once any text is online, it’s online everywhere and it’s free. But poets who are assertive about property, about authorship, about ownership are doing themselves a disservice.
I try to tell my students that writing a poem and putting it online should be like going to university. What parents want, what some parents want, is that, OK, move away from home, go away to go to university. Go get pierced and get an STD and stay up too late and dye your hair green and do all these kinds of things and skip class. Drop out and do this or that. Live your life and then come home like the prodigal son or daughter. Your parents are not going to recognize you. You will have grown, you will have metamorphosed in some way. You will have gone from caterpillar to, not a butterfly but some kind of hybrid thing. That’s where the learning took place, that’s where the growth took place. Take your precious little poem, your happy little first-year undergrad, set them off into the world, post them on the Internet and let it turn weird. Let it get cut and pasted, let it get screwed up, let it get redone, reorganized, placed into a context that you wouldn’t have recognized. Hopefully your strange poem will appear on some online porn site and a Russian dating site. Do these strange things, metamorphose, get translated into Portuguese and then back again — words all messed up — and then have it returned to you. What comes back has touched so many spaces on the Internet that it will be more poetic, more strange and more useful to you as a writer than keeping it under your bed or in your drawer or somehow proprietary. This is a living thing. Allow it on the Internet to get fucked up. It’s not about making it new, or making it precious. We’ve been making it new for a hundred years. Make it fucked up, make it strange, make it digital, make it infected.

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