Garth Martens won the 2011 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. His first book Prologue for the Age of Consequence (Anansi, 2014) was a Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry. His poems have appeared in publications like Poetry Ireland Review, Hazlitt, This Magazine, Geist, Vallum, Fiddlehead, Prism, Grain, and Best Canadian Poetry in English. In collaboration with Alma de España Flamenco Dance Company, he wrote and performed the libretto for Pasajes, an international production staged in 2014 at the Royal Theatre.
For nine years Martens has worked in large-scale commercial construction throughout northern Alberta and interior British Columbia. As another writer who has worked in the oil patches of northern Alberta, and who dried up as a creative force in that environment, I was particularly interested in what drove him to keep writing, let alone maintain inspiration, in such a rugged and muscular environment. His book Prologue for the Age of Consequence is almost entirely concerned with the world of the tar sands, and the lives of those who work within it. I also couldn’t ignore his penchant for Flamenco, and what thoughts he might bring to bear on “cross-pollination” in the arts.
First off, and it’s a little belated, but congratulations on your book Prologue for the Age of Consequence. It is intensely, darkly beautiful, and can leave one quite staggered at times. Obviously the book draws a lot from your experiences in the tar sands, the oil patches of Alberta. Having worked there myself, and as another creative person, I related quite fully. But I also had questions. Did these poems start coming to you unexpectedly while you were already ensconced in that world, or did you have an idea that a project like this would emerge beforehand? Perhaps discussing what led you to seek work out there in the first place, and the alternating experiences living up there and living in Victoria.
Thanks, Patrick. That’s kind of you. In 2006, I was working a lookout tower in Lac la Biche under the header of Alberta Wildfire Management, and sharing the gig with a girlfriend. Although losing at cards, killing mosquitoes, and growing paranoid about phantom smoke and stray figures in the birch were all formative experiences, the pay split in half didn’t amount to much. Through a contact in Edmonton I was hired on with a large-scale commercial construction company, and subsequently worked at several job sites up until late 2014. I didn’t anticipate writing about it. I didn’t want to. A few years later, after an especially exhausting stint in construction, I wrote a prose poem in the voice of a labourer. Soon I had the terrain for a unified manuscript. In tandem I read Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and The Divine Comedy, which shaped certain choices at an early stage.
How interesting or challenging was it for you to blend poetry and language with the mechanical aspect of that world? You obviously had to strike a balance, but it was interesting how important and beautiful some words became; words that are typically machine-driven, words I had never contemplated before.
Now, I don’t know which words you mean, specifically. Some words were shagged with mud or pollen, others perma-rinsed. I kept an extensive catalogue. If I heard a noun I’d never heard before, or a bit of slang, I wrote it down, or turned it in mnemonic sing-song until lunch or coffee. In the end I had a box of crumpled scraps and notepads, which I later typed. The language of construction sites, colloquial dialogue or the terminology of actions and parts, is so naturally the concern of poetry. At moments in writing and revising it seemed as though I were buttoning down, a line or a poem made incrementally sturdier, trading an adjective again and again until, whoa, it’s landed, each final choice like a screw buried flush in plywood. Any word at all might be balanced on the metaphorical drill-bit, so long as your wrist is steady, and it lands.
In terms of constructing a book of poetry, what was your approach? Did you start with one core poem, or image or line, and build in both directions from there? Or was a theme, even a narrative, involved at first, and then was it just a matter of constructing around this theme in an order that made sense?
When I wrote Johnny Lightning and the Apprentice and The Boss, I knew these characters would reoccur throughout the book. I wanted principal characters as well as a large crew whose individual faces would begin to blur together. The book has both lower and upper registers: close-to-the-ground poems in a character’s point of view; and poems at a distance through which characters are manipulated by greater forces, and where diction’s on high boil. When I wrote Seizures it defined a corresponding mythological corridor against which the ordinary reality buckled. I would say Seizures was the core. Another defining poem was Ahriman, clocking in at fourteen pages, and my editor was right to ask that I cut it. Still, it was a stave on which the manuscript was shaped. Even with it absent, it dragged the book over the line into wilder mythological territory and spilled shade on the later poems, particularly Silhouette, Arial, and Closure.
Talk us through the process of writing, and finally getting a book of poems published. When did you make time for writing? What state or time of day did you like to operate in? How hard was the hustle and grind of getting a collection published? Essentially, everyone’s process and journey is different. It’s always interesting to get an insight into craft, habit, all those idiosyncrasies that form a writer. Also, what about “cross-pollination” in the arts. You love flamenco dancing, for example. How does that inspire you, or does it? And what else?
The months I wasn’t working construction I wrote or edited poems from six in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon, or whenever I wanted a nap. Usually I began the day reading and taking notes. Most often I wrote in a cafe down the road from my house, where I gained a reputation as an odd duck. I was convinced covering my mouth with my hand would obscure my habit of speaking lines of poetry in a whisper as I wrote them. It didn’t. When I became a more intimate factor in the social matrix of the baristas, which is when I began receiving free coffee and banana bread, I was told that, No, actually, everyone saw me talking to myself and it was weird, definitely weird. In contrast, when working construction, usually twelve hour shifts, I wrote for two or three hours after work, or the rare day off.
During the five-and-a-half year span of writing the book, I had periods of inactivity where I did nothing but eat chocolate covered peanuts because my heart was in disorder. For six months I travelled Chile and Argentina, chewing the proverbial ankle, during which time I received an email from House of Anansi asking for the rest of my manuscript. I was expecting an answer in eight months, not two weeks, as happened. I had no access to the manuscript, which existed in scattered documents on a computer in Canada. Thankfully a friend broke into my apartment and transferred over thirty documents via email. My computer terminal in Buenos Airies was a Soviet-era IBM running a bizarro version of Windows and with a keyboard missing several vowels and punctuation marks. Furthermore, if I saved my document, the next day all the changes I made would be impossible to retrieve. I don’t know why. Although we were allowed no more than fifteen minutes at the computer at a time, I sat there for ten hours until the manuscript was assembled in one document, and revised, and I e-mailed it to Anansi, under the resentful observation of other tourists anxiously waiting for access to the internet.
Several months later I signed a contract. I was assigned an exceptional editor, Sara Peters, who was one part therapist, one part exorcist. She was enormously generous with her time and attention, and she got all up in my grill where it mattered. So the editing process was an energetic eight months. I wrote new work, revised old work. I was given, I think, three false deadlines. When it was over, I was exhausted.
Lastly, how has your publication changed your life as a poet? More readings, bookings? What doors have opened?
I travel more often for readings and festivals. I’m solicited for a poem sometimes, or asked to give a speech at weddings. There are a few more cheques. Occasionally someone stops me in the street, or halts me in a cafe, and says, “Your book made me angry at you,” or, “Can you look at my poems?” Sometimes I’m offered opera tickets. Most significantly there are readers who have stirred in my ruminations and they tell me so. There are parents who say they want a copy for their son or daughter who works up north. There is an understanding where there hadn’t been.
Patrick Murry is a writer and cartoonist currently enrolled in UBC’s MFA program. He has served as an executive editor for The Warren Undergraduate Review and has been running his comic strip North-East Lynx online and in print since 2008.