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 Another unpublished collection of poems was set in the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other places as was one novel (as yet unpublished) set in Africa, one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mostly in Korea and Laos -- all four are unpublished.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
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?
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
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
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
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.