Billeh Nickerson

billeh_main_20140508Interviewed by Shannon Rayne

Billeh Nickerson is a poet, performer, editor and teacher. He is the author of four poetry collections of poetry —The Asthmatic Glassblower; McPoems; Impact: The Titanic Poems; and Artificial Cherry— and the humour collection Let Me Kiss It Better. He is also co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets. His most recent book, Artificial Cherry, was shortlisted finalist for the 2014 City of Vancouver Book Award. He is the Chair of the Creative Writing department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

You incorporate a lot of humour, sarcasm, wit and irony in your poetry – making both your poetry and your readings a joy to encounter. What are the advantages of using humour as a writing tool for you?  What does it allow you to do in your writing? 

Hmmm, that’s an interesting question as I find that humour has been beneficial to my work, but it also causes some folks to undervalue what I do. I love it when readers let their guard down after laughing. That’s the best time to pull a knife of an image or situation on them. That ability is the advantage. It can also start the conversation on taboo and political topics.Are their any disadvantages to using humour in poetry? 

The hardest part was when I wrote Impact, my book about the Titanic and everyone expected me to perform these funny poems, but there’s not a lot of humour in shipwrecks.

I do what I do. I don’t suppose that will stop any time soon, but some critics have attacked me as being less crafted. This used to upset me somewhat and I’d want to send them my 25 revisions of each poem, but who cares? I would never want to go to their dinner parties anyway.

Speaking of craft…I love how you use lists, and variations on the list poem, throughout Artificial Cherry and use it in surprising ways. What do you enjoy about the form? 

I like incorporating rhythm and sound play into my lists. That and making the reader realize that there is often more going on in the list than at first glance. It’s curated hoarding. Lol.

One of my favourite sections in Artificial Cherry is the series of prose poems in the section titled “Shelagh Rogers Called me a Slut and Other True Stories.” As a suite they reveal a very intriguing sub-text about the literary community and what it is like to participate in the various poetry reading events in Canada.  Were you conscious of the narrative thread that ran through these poems as you were writing them?    

This piece was originally commissioned by Event magazine. Elizabeth Bachinsky had heard about many of the strange events I’ve read at and ask me to write them down. I don’t know whether more strange things happen to me or whether I’m just strange enough to notice (and remember) what others don’t. The memories felt like little postcards. The form mirrored that.

Many of the poems in Artificial Cherry are grouped together based on themes, such as the poems in the “Bode” section that use the body as a springboard into memory and associations.  Do you consciously set out to write a suite of poetry focused on a central idea or theme?

When putting together the manuscript I noticed an overlap of content that was both body-centred and bawdy. That doubleness intrigued me. I never said to myself “Let’s write another body/bawdy poem!” though once I identified that trope, it probably guided me down that slope. Sometimes like attracts like. Maybe it’s just that the body is one of the last sites of taboo and I’m often drawn to taboo.

Where do your ideas for your manuscripts come from? Does the idea give rise to new poems, or do the poems you have written give rise to a manuscript idea?

My previous two books, about the Titanic and fast food culture, were topic driven.

For Artificial Cherry I was just happy to be able to write about a whole bunch of different topics this time. I purposefully decided to not tackle another topic book. Those ones take a lot of brain juice.

I don’t know where my poems come from. Probably the same place as unicorns. The only certainty is that something in the process must intrigue me: image or sound or word play or the politics or the absurdity to name a few.

Do you have a writing routine? 

I tend to write a lot over a few weeks and then spend the next few months revising. This probably has a lot to do with my teaching schedule. Of interest to me is that I write more in the daytime than the night. This is new and freaks me out a bit as I’ve always been a night writer. I’ve heard of this happening once a writer has a baby. I have cats. Does that count?

How do you stay inspired (and motivated) to write? 

Fill up the page. Follow intuition and intrigue. Stop worrying about being perfect right from the first jotting.

Some writers say having a day job with consistent pay is essential; they can’t write if they’re worried about paying their rent. Would you agree? What makes a good writer’s day job?

I’ve seen all types of recipes for literary creation. Money can make things easier—especially for novelists and longer form writers—but I find that poets find a way to get their writing done no matter their financial situation. We have to. I worry such questions are related to the bullshit premise of writers needing to suffer for their art. I hate that. I tell my students they don’t need to self-sabotage themselves in order to write. Breaking up with someone might lead to a poem, but it’s not going to help you write.

How do you balance teaching at Kwantlen with your own writing process?

I tend not to write after the first month of the term. I can still revise and pull a few poems out of the air when I teach, but it’s just too difficult to sustain a solid output when I’m marking. It’s the marking that’s hard, not the teaching.

Teaching is one of the most rewarding parts of my life though. I don’t mind that there’s some trade-offs output wise. I’m a lucky man.

Shannon Rayne is a poet, writer and health researcher living in Vancouver. She holds a M.Sc. in Community Health Sciences and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. She often explores themes of sex, intimacy and gender in her work, often through the use of humour. She is currently assembling a book length collection of poetry that explores coffee culture in Vancouver and a collection of essays about sexual development.

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