Patrick Woodcock is a poet and critic. He has published nine books of poetry, the most recent of which, You can’t bury them all: Poems (ECW Press, 2016), won the Alcuin Society Book Design Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Poetry Prize. In the following post, Woodcock discusses his how he got his start as a writer, his advice for aspiring writers, his new poetry collection, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and poetry in particular?
I began writing when I was quite young, but they were closer to pop lyrics or prose poem fragments than poetry. But no matter how much I read I was always drawn more to poetry than any other form. I guess I began writing poetry because I loved the art but now it is also essential to help me feel less loaded down when I wake up—it helps me lighten reality. I think every year my reasons for writing poetry change, but my love for it has never wavered.
What do you think is changing in poetry these days?
I am not sure. But I do fear, especially within today’s political climate, that poets are beginning to wall themselves in. There is a need for community and the financial safety and security of living in one specific area, and I think this leads to dull poets and dulled poetry. Words like “brave” are bandied about a lot and I just don’t see what’s brave about most things I read online or in journals. Do you really know anything about China if you bicycle to China Town to buy your ginger?
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
I have lost a lot of my connection to what I used to feel a Canadian is or was and Nova Scotia offers me a place to suppress and address this. I have seen and experienced a lot and there is certainly a great disconnect happening in me. I am just not too sure where it is going—hiking in Nova Scotia or swimming in the Atlantic is my attempt at psychotherapy.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
That you enjoy it.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Join PEN. It is your moral duty to be political, leave Canada, look back—return and improve it. But we also need to address the outdated notion of Think Globally Act Locally. What absolute and obsolete bullshit. Do some research, get on a plane and immerse yourself in another country. Think Globally, Act Globally—if not, then you have no right to criticize the top 1%. Because if you are Canadian, you are in the top1% of the world’s population. Take your beliefs and your writing and leave.
What’s the last great movie you saw?
There are three. I just watched 24 Frames by Abbas Kiarostami while listening to the new Spiritualized album—that was nice. I am not near any water right now so the waves in both helped me a lot. And his movie Taste of Cherry is now one of my favourites. November by Rainer Sarnet was also wonderful.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Watching the anarchic traffic in Arusha, Tanzania—how the cars and motorcycles spar with each other.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I don’t get writer’s block. My problem now is trying to manage and record the myriad of ideas and images exploding within me. Managing time is by far my greatest obstacle. But I certainly won’t live long enough to get all the material I carry, out.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I can’t imagine what I would be. But it would have to be in the arts. An actor or comedian I guess. In my day to day life I am sort of those already, so perhaps a railroad conductor who plays orchestra symbols while he works. I like that…you’d surely hear the train coming.
What are you working on right now?
I am living in Tanzania and working on a book called Farhang which is the Kurdish word for dictionary. It is the name of book and the main protagonist—but the book itself is a poetic memoir—a group of letters to my friend Peter Shaw—about what I have seen over the last quarter century. Pete was the first person I met when I left Canada to teach and write in Poland. I loved him—as pure as one can love someone outside of their family. But I failed him horribly and find it hard to forgive myself. He was quite a bit older than me, I was 24 and he was in his 60s when we met. But he was asked to leave the school where I worked in Koszalin, Poland because he was too odd and eccentric. I knew that moving back to Bristol, England would kill him, and I wrote him a long letter telling him that he was loved by many people and life would get better. But for some reason I will never understand, I left the stamped envelope under my passenger visor for weeks. All I had to do was mail it, nothing else—I have nightmares about this still to this day. One morning in Oakville I received a call from a mutual friend that Peter had hung himself. I asked for his sister’s number and called her to express how gutted I was, and she told me that my letter had arrived the same day he killed himself. There has not been one day in my life over the last 25 years that I have not spoken to him in some way. This book is a discussion between Peter and I, and in another sense, a plea for his forgiveness. I guess the book should be called Pete, but I am too much of a coward to do that—so Farhang we are.