Interviewed by Christopher Evans
Matt Rader has authored three books of poems: Miraculous Hours, Living Things, and, most recently, A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Walrus, All Hollow, The Fiddlehead, Geist, and many other publications spanning the globe; his work has been nominated for the Journey prize, a National Magazine Award, and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, among others. Rader has studied writing at the University of Victoria, the University of Oregon, and the Banff Centre Writing Studio, and has taught at the University of Oregon, Okanagan College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and North Island College on Vancouver Island. His first book of short stories, What I Want to Say Goes Like This, will be published by Nightwood Editions in Fall, 2014.
A wise friend turned me on to Rader’s work; A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno became the first book of poetry I ever purchased and revealed to me a secret history of the West Coast, half-concealed under a tangle of weeds. I caught up with Rader via email at his home in Cumberland, BC.
What does an ideal working day look like for Matt Rader?
Though this never happens, my ideal workday begins after a long sleep. It involves a cup of coffee in the morning, swimming, sunshine, fresh fruits and vegetables, various other things that we don’t talk about in interviews like this, and so on. My ideal workday involves almost no work.
Besides the three books of poems you’ve authored, your fiction and poetry have also appeared in numerous publications across North America, Europe ,and Australia and you’ve done several interviews, including this one. How did you become comfortable in submitting and promoting your work? At what stage of career were you comfortable describing yourself as a writer?
I’m not sure that I am comfortable submitting or promoting my work. I certainly don’t like the term submission. At some point I just realized I needed to be the emissary of my art. I think I started calling myself a writer at some point in my early 30s when it became more embarrassing to call myself something else. Actually, I’ve never had a permanent full-time job. Being a writer is about the most consistent thing I’ve done in my adult life. So I guess I started calling myself a writer when it became true to call myself a writer.
Your first book of poems, Miraculous Hours, was published by Nightwood Editions in 2005. Can you describe what that process was like?
Exhilarating. Torturous. Hilarious. Futile. Weird. And a whole bunch of other abstractions. The first copy of the book arrived at my door on my 27th birthday. That year my first daughter was born. It was the beginning of a whole new part of my life. So thank you, Silas White (Nightwood Publisher).
You’ve taught both creative writing and English. What role, if any, has education had in your own development as a writer?
I’ve spent most of my life either at school or working for post secondary institutions. So these institutions have obviously played a large role in my development as a writer. The same would be true for any activity that occupied as much time in my life. A friend of mine who is an English professor once told me that he got into that line of work because it was the closest thing he could find to being paid to sit in a bar and talk about books. I took that to mean he enjoys the freedom of an academic life. This is something I can get behind.
Your poetry sometimes has a complex narrative structure and your fiction often has a lyrical quality. What dictates which form an idea takes? Why does “History” take the form of a poem and “You Have to Think of Me What You Think of Me” as short fiction?
Poetry and fiction as categories are more like technologies to me, and narration and lyricism are modes through which these technologies can be implemented. Sometimes you write with a pen sometimes you type on a screen. Fiction and nonfiction strike me as genres in a more conventional sense. Plenty of poetry is fictionalized, plenty is nonfiction. For me, working in these different modes, attitudes and technologies is mostly a matter of emphasis in response to the particular conditions under which I’m working that day. Which is the say I have no rules about what can be what. I’m just arranging elements and hoping for the best.
What does your revision process look like? Does anything go out as a first draft?
Seamus Heaney said most of his best poems come out fully formed. There’s something to this that I can relate to. However, most of my work goes through extensive revisions. This includes extensive revisions during the writing of the first draft. I often look back to earlier parts of the piece for clues to move forward. In doing so, I often discover areas to develop earlier the piece that will provide the roadmap for the rest of the composition. I also seek the eyes in ears of friends to help me gain perspective.
When you write, who are you addressing? Do you write for an audience or purely for yourself in the hope that the work will find an audience?
I try to write what and how I find interesting. That’s my first goal. I do write for other people. Usually it’s not a specific person or a specific set of people. I do want to make the writing rich enough that others can draw value from it. It’s not essential to me that others understand everything I’m writing about. I certainly don’t understand everything I read and enjoy. But I do want the writing to be generous enough on several levels to impact readers.
You currently reside in the Comox Valley of Vancouver Island. What are the pros and cons of working from a non-urban location? Does natural beauty trump easy accessibility? How does place inform your work?
This is a big question. I grew up in the Comox Valley and my writing has largely been centered on the Comox Valley and Vancouver Island and coastal BC in general. This place as a nexus of ecological, cultural, geological, social, and personal histories is my primary topic. Or it is the primary lens through which I enter the world with my writing.
There are fewer opportunities to engage with other writers here. You don’t ever go to a party in the Valley and meet a magazine editor who might want you to write something. It’s easy to be unremembered and misremembered by writers living in the larger centres. On the other hand, there’s a certain remove from the politics and conflicts of the literary world that has an ameliorating effect.
I don’t know that it has much to do with beauty. Cities also have a beauty. I love Vancouver Island. It’s my home.
What the biggest hurdle you’ve faced in your professional career? How did you overcome it?
The biggest hurdle I’ve faced in the last few years has been accepting the contingent nature of my working life. But this is very common. And not just for artists. I haven’t overcome it yet.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given? Do you have any pearls of wisdom for those just starting out?
My advisor at the University of Oregon told me that the more one thinks about an idea the more difficult it is to say anything about that idea because it becomes more and more clear that what you might say and also its opposite are both true.
Mary Ruefle says that dead writers are the right kind of people to be our teachers. She says living poets can’t tell us anything about poetry because only dead people are the full kind of people.
I say don’t be afraid. And be afraid.
“Love” the word, not the weirdo.
Originally from Victoria, BC, Christopher Evans now lives with his wife and young daughter in Vancouver, where he is in the final year of his BFA in Creative Writing at UBC. His short fiction has previously appeared in Grain, The Canary Press, and Vine Leaves and is upcoming in Riddle Fence and The New Quarterly.