Ben Ladouceur is a writer and teacher whose debut collection of poems, Otter, was published by Coach House Books in 2015. It quickly impressed the literary world with its honest voice and lyrical charm. His work has been featured in many literary magazines such as Arc, The Malahat Review, PRISM international and The Walrus. He was awarded the Earle Birney Poetry Prize in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Type Book Award in 2015. Originally from Ottawa, now based in Toronto, Ben graciously agreed to converse with me over email and again showed his wit in answering these questions about his life as a writer.
This is a question I’ve fielded a few times since Otter came out, and a question I’ve read in many interviews with poets. I have never seen someone ask a novelist, “Why novels?” Everybody writes poems in elementary school. All I did was remain in that state of poem-production. I don’t see that as misconduct, though apparently it is, because most adults aren’t writing poems. But sometimes I want to grab strangers on the subway and shake them and ask, “Why not poetry??”
Who or what inspires you when writing?
Here are four artists whose works are important to acknowledge when I talk about Otter: the composer Philip Glass; the novelist Marian Engel; the historian Modris Eksteins; the choreographer Lloyd Newson. Who else… Kate Bush, Richard Serra, PK Page, Carly Rae Jepsen, autumn, octopuses, and the works of my arts-peers here in Toronto and Ottawa.
In Otter your poems move seamlessly through history, from the First World War to modern day. Why did you decide to approach your poetry this way?
Those WWI poems happened, all in a very short amount of time, with their strange, campy, macabre disposition. Then they petered out eventually, having evidently done their job, and that was a slight relief, because it was a pretty bleak thing by which to be occupied. Other themes came in (the modern day stuff you mention) and I found the juxtaposition meaningful and reasonable and interesting, so they’re in the same book.
Was there ever anything else that you wanted to do other than be a writer?
Every three or four years, I spend a few hours being disappointed with myself for not having become a vet. It’s a silly question, though, because a person could be both a vet and a writer. Very few writers are only writers. Active poets might have jobs in education (i.e., me), or finance, or public service, or the media, or beekeeping, or…
One thing that I love about your poetry is its lyrical grittiness. Your poems often explore intimate moments between friends and lovers using images that are not only beautiful, but courageously raw. Do you see yourself as a courageous writer? Do you have any fears in regard to your writing?
The trick to bravery is being pretty certain that nobody will publish it anyway. And then they do, and it’s like, oops! Of course, you hope the reader reads a poem as a poem, and not as a poem-shaped diary entry. But ultimately you can’t control that. I don’t especially identify as a brave writer, but maybe I’m a trusting one.
I’ve noticed that you shifted from poetry to screenwriting with your web series Other Men and I am interested in your experience moving from one writing genre to another and if film is an area you might pursue?
I would totally make more film projects if I won the lottery. But film is expensive. We had a lot of unpaid labour with the pilot of the series because people liked the project. The final product got views and a slot at a festival, but financial support didn’t materialize, so we couldn’t make any more episodes. Other Men was a lot of fun to make. Lots of laughter and stress and adrenaline and love. But to take filmmaking seriously, you can’t get away with just sitting there and writing. You’ve got to collaborate, procure funds, know people. Poetry on the other hand lacks hassles. It goes me, poem, reader. That’s better.
Are there other forms of writing you are drawn to?
I love writing letters, and little notes for the people whose couches I sleep on, for them to find on their counter when they’re up and I’m gone. I like to write punchy little captions for the various links that I email my friends, and to-do lists on these skinny pink Post-Its that I must have stolen from work by accident.
What is your favourite poem that you’ve written and why?
My favourite poem is whichever poem I’ve written most recently that broke new ground. And it will keep being my favourite poem, until I break new ground again. That slot has been occupied, previously, by the poems “Library Book,” “Happy Birthday, Thomas Dearnley-Davison,” “Gulag,” “An Ideal Inmate,” “Eiderdown,” “Brown Study,” and other poems not published in Otter …These poems were each the first of their kind, so to speak, and they all had their turn as the darling.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers? Is it advice that someone gave you or something you learned along the way?
Don’t brown-nose with poets, even if you think it’ll help your career. Poets, of all people, will smell your phoniness from miles and miles away. If you attend readings, pay attention to the material rather than the people. Then go home and write. There aren’t many pure meritocracies left, but poetry is close. Who you know will not make a big difference. You will need good poems.
Halle Gulbrandsen is currently a BFA Creative Writing student at the University of British Columbia, focussing primarily on fiction and poetry.