8-Ball: Interview with Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is a writer, editor and sometime passenger train attendant living in Halifax. His most recent collection of poems is Track & Trace (Biblioasis, 2009) and The Essential Kenneth Leslie, which he edited, will be published in March by The Porcupine’s Quill. His website is zachariahwells.com and he blogs at Career Limiting Moves.

1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?

Q: Is it true what they say about bald men being more virile?

A: Yes, Kate Winslet, yes it is.

2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?

Don’t try to publish that shit–you’ll regret it.

3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?

Lots of things are wrong with the publishing industry, but the thing that’s bugging me most these days is the union-type rules related to Canada Council block grant disbursements, whereby really enterprising, energetic and talented junior publishers receive smaller grants than sluggish, attenuated, mediocre relics–no matter what the jury recommends. These grants should be going to the houses making the most significant contributions–now–to publishing, not to those whose main claims to fame are their backlist and the fact of their survival. But then, survival’s what Canadian literature’s all about, ain’t it.

I think there are a lot of really dynamic small presses producing worthwhile books and in many cases making those books into beautiful objects. I think a few players on the small press scene have really raised the bar over the last decade, which has spurred some presses to up their game and has provided inspiration and a positive example to upstart publishers. Good design is so important, I think. What’s the point of making something few people are going to buy if you make it cheap and ugly? There are enough cheap and ugly things in the world. So kudos to presses like Gaspereau, Biblioasis, Coach House and the Porcupine’s Quill, to name a few, for giving words durable and stylish homes.

4. How will technology change writing?

It can only be changed so much. Writing’s a time-based art form. One word, then another.

5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)

For poems, there is no process, nor are there typical pieces. Each one happens on its own terms and turns out how it turns out. A poem is only interesting insofar as it’s atypical. Once I’ve got a draft I’m reasonably happy with, I publish it on my blog. If an editor asks me for poems, I’ll send them, but I very rarely submit unsolicited poems. Can’t be bothered. When I’ve got enough good poems that seem to go together, I assemble a manuscript and give it to my publisher. Then I work on the ms. with an editor. Then a book comes out.

As far as a specific example goes, for anyone who’s interested, I recommend checking out my essay, “A Muddled, Duller Place,” published in the Frog Hollow Press anthology Approaches to Poetry: The Pre-Poem Moment. It’s way too long to reproduce here.

For reviews, it usually involves someone asking me to write something and giving me a deadline by which it’s to be received. I get the book in the mail, read it once, more or less right away, out loud. This reading is to give me a sense of how it sounds, more than what it says. Then I put it away until closer to the deadline and read it again, silently, taking notes, often re-reading individual poems several times. Then I try to articulate my thoughts and feelings about the book as cogently and succinctly as possible. Once I’ve finished a couple of drafts, I read it aloud to myself to try and catch any boggy bits and infelicities of grammar and syntax. There’s no shit-detector like an out-loud reading, I find. Then I hand it in and do any revisions the editor requires. It bugs me a bit when someone says, based on nebulous ideas about what my aesthetic predilections are, that my reviews are skewed by a priori judgments of books, because I put quite a lot of work into them and often wind up surprising myself. A specific recent example being my long review of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Found in Arc Poetry Magazine.

I go thru a similar process for essays, but the idea for an essay is more often mine than a magazine editor’s, so I’ll pitch it before I write it.

6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?

My life’s far too erratic for daily habits. I write when I feel like it and read when I can.

7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?

Personally, all I want to do is write the best poems I’m capable of writing. Professionally–more like amateurly, in the non-pejorative sense of the word–I hope that a few, or even one, of those poems are read by strangers long after I’m dead.

As a reviewer, my principal desire is to spark discussion.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Because if I quit, then all the stupid lifestyle decisions I’ve made over the last dozen years will have been for nothing. It’s a MacBeth-type thang.

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