Matt Robinson is the author of five full-length poetry collections and four chapbooks. His latest collection, a chapbook entitled AGAINST, will be released by Gaspereau Press in the fall of 2018. In the following post, he talks about his first publication, life in Halifax, and his advice to aspiring writers.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry in particular?
I’ve been writing in a meaningful way with an eye to showing others my poems or trying to publish poems since the last year or so of my undergrad at Saint Mary’s, in one way or another. My first real publication was a short poem in the SMU Undergrad English Society’s annual anthology (in about 1995, if I remember correctly).
That said, I was writing poems if only as a form of creative expression and a hobby throughout high school as well. (That stuff—looking back and cringing—was pretty bad, though, by what I’d call my present standards. It was more or less bad rock n’ roll lyrics slapped together by one of the least musical people in the world. Basically unremarkable teenage-boy stuff about sports and girls and fitting in and being happy or sad or whatever. I like to think I’ve made some strides in honing my craft since then. Hopefully.) And, of course, I remember the poetry / writing exercises that we did in junior high or even elementary school where you would write little poems about the seasons or specific holidays and the like.
As for poetry, while I can be longwinded in many ways among friends, in terms of creative expression, I’ve always, as far as I can remember, been drawn to brevity and intensity; figurative language, metaphor and comparison; and music or sonic qualities (even though I can’t play anything at all instrument-wise). Poetry seemed a natural fit for that sort of thing. In the past, when I attempted short fiction (which I adore as a reader), things always ended up reduced to a kind of prose poem, if not straight lyric poetry. It’s where I want to be genre-wise. Period. It’s really all I can write, no matter what I try (aside from policy documents and such for my day job).
What do you think is changing in poetry these days?
As I think has always been the case, as far as poetry goes—and I should clarify that in this instance poetry in English (or that’s been translated into English) is what I’m referencing, as I won’t pretend to be well-versed in poetic traditions across other languages—certain aspects or elements or dynamics are always in flux.
For me, what seems most evident or important at present is the influx of disparate and traditionally under-represented voices. This increase in vibrancy and diversity of poetic voice—as well as how those voices and poems (new and old) are being shared and amplified (not just through traditional journals and trade publications, but also via various electronic and social media platforms, through a vigorous revival of chapbooks here in Canada, through various presses and publishers doing things like broadsides and other letterpressed media)—is exciting and is clearly invigorating poets and readers.
Your most recent full-length collection, Some Nights It’s Entertainment; Some Other Nights Just Work (Gaspereau Press, 2016), is a book of love poems. In your opinion, what makes a good love poem?
To my mind, what makes a good love poem is—in many ways—what makes a good poem, in general. I keep returning to a poetic process in which a poem is really an idea or argument or a hypothesis of sorts that gets explored, interrogated and worked through, primarily via metaphor and sound and rhythm. There’s a kind of visual component, for me as well, though that’s mostly to do with line-breaking and enjambment and setting up the poem to work as both a collection of both grammatical / syntactic units and individual line units. I’m not a particularly visual or concrete poet, otherwise.
I suppose the other thing is that in terms of love poems specifically, I’m partial to avoiding or at least challenging (or trying to challenge) the overly sentimental or traditionally sentimental as a necessary aspect of things. I’m not likely to write a straight on love poem, if I can help it. My preference is to come at the thing aslant or indirectly.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
As someone who—to be fair—has always approached poetry and its writing as something other than the main way I planned to support myself in an everyday way and put proverbial bread on the table, for me it’s probably the notion that being a poet or a writer is something that’s inherently different, more or less challenging, rewarding, important, or more or less glamourous / exciting / romantic than any other job or hobby or human endeavour.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
First off: read. Some folks say reading widely is the best approach; others suggest reading in a very strategically narrow way. At this point, I believe simply reading in some way is all that is important.
Then, maybe: try as much as you can to write for yourself and without particular wider readership or audience or reward or external validation in mind. If you are writing primarily in the hopes of an audience or of praise or fame, you’re likely to spend a lot of time on self-doubt and feeling poorly about things. But if you’re writing for yourself and a sense of what you want to produce, you may find yourself doing some interesting things and end up happier.
What’s great about (writing in) your part of Nova Scotia?
Halifax is a great city in so many ways: it’s a gorgeous physical location with a sense of history and an energy that seems future-driven, too. And it has, if you choose to engage, a pretty vibrant mix of people. And expanding diversity. There that mix of universities and government and military and other industries. That means a mix of people and personalities that I’ve realized, having visited other places, I often take for granted unknowingly. So, all that, and then being by the Atlantic Ocean, is pretty great.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Fish and chips? British docu-series or reality TV on Netflix, maybe? Definitely cat and dog and wombat videos I can rustle up via Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere. And goalie gear. Though I’m not really all that guilty about them. I just realize these things may not be for everyone.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
At the best of times, I write in fits and starts, so writer’s block in the sense of not being able to produce anything during regular / scheduled writing sessions doesn’t really apply for me and isn’t really something with which I struggle. I’m content to write in the bursts that I have and do.
That said, I find that I go through periods of three main sorts of creative endeavour: 1. Drafting / writing new pieces and honing them, 2. Editing or re-working older pieces (including poems that have already been published in one form or another), and 3. Reading. Basically, while I am always reading in one way or another, I’m usually doing only #3, or a combo of #1 and #3 or #2 and #3.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m doing a lot or reading, mostly short fiction and some poetry. I’m also in the process of beginning what will hopefully develop into a full length manuscript of poems that follow a full year / season of beer league hockey from registration, through a draft, the weekly games, and the end of the season through playoffs (or not) and a banquet. I’ve written plenty of hockey poems in the past, and I even had a full collection of them published by ECW Press back in 2005 (no cage contains a stare that well). But now I want to delve into the particular beer league I’ve been involved for years here in Halifax at Centennial Arena. I feel there’s an un-tapped poetry there.