Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Vernon Mooers responds

Vernon Mooers: I published 19 short stories in magazines and journals, several chapbooks, one collection of poetry and a novel and won 26 awards for writing, including first prize for poetry in the Metro Seoul Essay Competition, Canada Council awards and various other prizes in regional and national writing competitions.

DV: Vernon, why would anyone, especially you, write poetry? And why so much of it?

VM: Keep my sanity maybe --  it's therapeutic -- isolated in Asia in the mountains teaching in a college last year with no TV or internet in the house -- so I wrote a novel over a 6 month period -- it was enjoyable. Getting older and living on the edge traveling a lot -- I'd also like to leave something behind in this life.

DV: I know you've worked a lot of places, Nigeria, Korea, Oman, China among them. Other than providing subject matter, have any of the places in your world affected your writing in any way?

VM - Of course  you are affected by the places you live -- and I am especially prone to that. My first poetry collection "Gypsy Hymns" was comprised of mostly travel poems set in hitchhiking across Canada and around Europe and living and teaching in Nigeria -- in fact the first chapbook published by Brandon University in their Dollapoems series "Inside a Mosquito Net" was Nigeria-set poems. I also published a chapbook myself "Nests on the Cliffs"-- poems set in Newfoundlanld. My later manuscript of poems "Crying Mountain -- Korea Poems" started as a series of chapbooks using other artists' work sprinkled through the chapbook and eventually there were enough poems for a complete collection. Another unpublished collection of poems was set in the middle east. That's how I work -- my writing is all set in a locale -- probably because I started writing feature articles and then music articles for newspapers and magazines and when teaching veered off into poetry and short stories.

DV: How did you get started as a writer?

VM: My first published short fiction piece was in "Descant" and was set in northern British Columbia. Most of the other short stories (19 were published in magazines and journals but never in a collection) were set in New Brunswick. The poems and essays though all were set other places as was one novel (as yet unpublished) set in Africa, one across Canada and Europe and one in my hometown and the latest -- set mostly in Korea and Laos -- all four are unpublished. Since I had a photo-journalistic style of photography, which I was into before writing, my work is more prone to being influenced by place. I actually started writing articles to supplement photos, thinking I would be a journalist, but I began teaching all the time always and writing in my spare time. Again, so why write? I don't need an audience. I did when I started out with the magazines and newspapers --  it's sort of egotistical.

DV: We first met last millennium at a SAN open mike. Do you still do any performances?

VM: I haven't done any public readings for about five years. Besides, spoken word performances are a bit of work -- you really have to entertain the audience. Luckily I can do a few riffs on blues harmonica to introduce one of the train poems, but you really have to have an act -- and music is much easier -- especially if you read in open stages in bars where there's pool playing -- you have the mike -- you can take control -- and if you aren't engaging you're liable to have a beer bottle thrown at you. Theses days I don't need the attention or fame. The writing is more an internal thing - as a friend of mine said about life "it's the journey that matters not the destination" so the best part for me has been the process of writing. Opening the box and seeing the book is only exciting for a day and reviews are sensitive, so it's that lone experience of producing it that is most rewarding to me -- and the feeling of accomplishing and finishing that piece as a work of art. Ultimately, you have to answer to yourself.

DV: When did you first start to think of yourself as a Writer?

VM: I really started off writing poems and a couple of short stories and wasn't too experienced. It was a fluke the first story, which I wrote on the night shift working at a convenience store in Edmonton, came out in Descant. I sent stuff to Reader's Digest and other mags and the first poems from Nigeria after meeting and hanging around with Richard Stevenson, another teacher/poet. I actually naively mailed a group of poems to Arhuss University in Denmark and the same ones to Poetry Australia and both took "Train to Kano" and I had to write them in Denmark not to publish it as it was taken, though it wouldn't have mattered much at all if it appeared in both those publications. With no TV and spotty radio, I wrote short stories for four years, some of which were published as short fiction and later recycled as part of my first novel, and the others -- a few of which were published in mags -- rewritten as part of the African-set novel. That's how those novels came to be. The first I finished during a three month recovery from a car accident when the driver rolled the car off a hill in Newfoundland and I severely injured my neck and back -- had to stay in the house for 3 months, I used a hockey stick to hobble around house and propped up my neck on one hand at the desk and wrote that first novel -- it was a brush with death so it was then or never and I went at it every day and finished it. It was also by accident that it was published too. A couple of years later I was sitting in Fredericton at an outside cafe -- Brian Thompson who I knew from High School came along and we had a chat -- he was working with Doug Sutherland at Fundy Productions -- and we got to talking and he asked so I gave him some stuff the next day -- Doug liked that novel and published it under his imprint "Arcturus," even had it on his website which was nice. "It's got legs," Doug said. In fact, David Hughes, a retired lawyer, was a fan, bought a box of books, got them signed and was flogging them down at the courthouse to his lawyer friends at triple the price -- he really liked the novel and wanted to serialize it on radio stations a friend of his owned, but that never came to be. The whole thing was sort of a fluke but I got a lot of mileage out of it and sold a lot of books too.

DV: And then what happened?

VM: I've had probably two hundred poems in probably more than a hundred magazines or webzines- after awhile you completely lose track, and with all the traveling and moving around -- the issues they ever sent have been lost along the way. Probably I wrote more than three hundred poems -- some good -- some excellent -- some ready for the dustbin. I put all my manuscripts in a storage shed barn in New Brunswick -- and some were shipped in a box from Korea and are in a storage bin at my brother's house in Toronto, some chapbooks I did I saw at my sister's place on a shelf and my daughter came up with a couple of manuscripts in envelopes that I had mailed her from Korea too. All in all -- having taught in various countries in Asia and the Middle East and Africa, things got scattered. But I have the new novel on a flash I carry with me, so so far that more-than-eight-months' work is not lost -- though they did talk me into speeding up my computer -- a big mistake cause a month's writing I hadn't backed up got deleted in the process. There's something to be said for hard copy -- pen and ink or pencil and paper stuff, though these days I usually do first drafts completely on computer, unlike several years ago. My writing process has changed. But there is an added risk of stuff getting lost of course. It's the price of technology I guess. I don't use an e-reader. Anyway -- writing is still writing -- books are still books and I hope will be with us for a long time yet.

DV: So, far into the future I guess, literary archeologists will keep turning up Vernon manuscripts in odd places. Do you still remember the first thing you wrote, before you started doing poetry and fiction?

VM: I started off writing with a historical article for the local newspaper. My uncle wrote a column called "Game Trails and Fishing Pools" for the local paper. My mother was an editor at "Atlantic Advocate" and was too busy to write it for Heritage Trust so she asked me to do it -- I did the research and wrote it. We always had lots of books in the house as a child. Mother had done an article on Bliss Carmen's house and the Atlantic Adocate had an imprint and was publishing some books. When I went over to the Gleaner Building to sweep up on a Saturday -- the Advocate's office was over Neil's Hardware on Queen Street -- there were some books there they had published. She knew Alden Nowlan and several other writers. I did visit Alden in his house years later while attending both the Maritime Writers Workshop and the Maritime Photography Workshop one summer.

DV: Do you consider Nowlan to be an influence?

VM: We are all influenced by many people -- right now I'm staying a couple hundred meters from The Waverly Hotel where PEI poet Milton Acorn lived in Toronto and wrote some his best work -- I walk by it every day. As for Alden Nowlan, I remember a book of his poems my mother gave me for Christmas. I went to his readings at UNB and met him in his house also. I had great respect for him -- a bear of a man -- but very down to earth and human. I even wrote a eulogy poem for him that was published in "Pottersfield Portfolio" -- a Nova Scotia magazine. When you grow up in Fredericton you are influenced by the atmosphere -- the river, the trees, the place -- the atmosphere. It has been long known as "The Poet's Capital of Canada" -- Bliss Carman, Charles GD Roberts, Francis Sherman and others. I like to say "everyone from Fredericton is a poet -- walk by the river, shake a weeping willow or elm tree, one falls out." Peter Pacey's troupe "The Calithumpians" has been doing historical and local poems in their repertoire for years -- a generation of kids have performed in the park. I particularly remember Peter doing Alden Nowlan's poem about blackflies under the trees by the library -- actually swatting at them -- so if you are from New Brunswick, you can definitely relate to the poems.

DV: What else have you done that shaped your writing life?

VM: I worked in psychiatry and often did night shifts -- for a change I wrote music articles for "This Week" about bands  and we put out "Fat City" -- a Maritime Music magazine. Then I hurriedly went off to teach in Africa. There, I was so isolated in northern Nigeria -- in Borno State -- before Boko Harem days -- I just wrote poems and a lot of short stories over a four year period and taught O-Levels at a Government Secondary School and traveled on my motorcycle all over the north, even out a track to forest villages way off in the hills near Gwoza, slept in huts and went to places no outsider had ever been to I think. I also shot many rolls of B&W film, set up a darkroom in my house there and developed the negatives, but never ever printed them -- they are in storage in a suitcase in New Brunswick. I married in Kano and we had a daughter, so I always had to teach, was busy through the years trying to survive and did writing in my spare time -- but diligently.

DV: You've certainly been productive. What gets you juiced as a writer?

VM: When I first started writing I liked to see my name and a poem or story in a litmag -- later I'd check libraries for my books. Now I just look at all the stacks and feel small -- some people have written many books. Even small accomplishments like having a poem in a Jr or High School Language Arts textbook wears thin or winning a prize in a competition. It's helpful and encouraging to have some success but it's not like winning the Nobel Prize or anything. Many are called but few are chosen -- we are not all major rock stars or Booker Prize winners or Presidents or whatever. To keep writing you have to satisfy yourself. The first writing workshop I attended I was -- as common probably -- asking Nancy Bauer -- seeking assurance - if I had a sliver talent or whatever. She said you're off to Africa -- you can write -- you'll know when or not to stop. So we all know in ourselves when to write or stop, take a break, re-write -- it's just like music that way -- some songs exist for the moment, some go to the studio cutting floor and some are produced and played differently next time. Writing is sort of like that to me. Feedback is good -- it's just not as immediate as in music or other things, with the web, social media and all.


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