Michael Turner is an award-winning writer of fiction, criticism and song. His books include Hard Core Logo, The Pornographer’s Poem and 8x10, and his writing has appeared in journals such as Art Papers, Art on Paper and Modern Painters. A frequent collaborator, he has written scripts with Stan Douglas, poems with Geoffrey Farmer and libretto with Andrea Young, as well as catalogue essays on Julia Feyrer, Fred Herzog, Brian Jungen and Ken Lum.
RUSTY TALK WITH MICHAEL TURNER
Kathryn Mockler: How did you first come to writing?
Michael Turner: Like many of us, I came to writing in kindergarten, forcing that thing in my
hand—P-E-N-C-I-L—to mimic the letter professionally printed before it. Before that I composed with whatever was lying around the house. Even before we learn to write, we are writing.
As I learned to write I wrote for myself and pasted my writings into a scrap book. Because the writings we were reading in elementary school were often accompanied by images, I would paste images above, below or beside my writings. Sometimes I would find a piece of writing in a magazine, cut it out and draw the accompanying image myself. Sometimes I would compose a page with both my own writing and my own drawing; others times "found" writings and "found" drawings. I did not distinguish between my work and the work of others because for me it was about the composed page, the total composition.
After a while the page became pages, a sequence. If you look at my first two books, Company Town (1991) and Hard Core Logo (1993), you will see evidence of the child I once was.
KM: What keeps you going as a writer or why do you write?
MT: For the longest time I would say, I write because I have to write. I still say that, but the more accurate answer is I write because that is what I do, and I feel I am too old to do anything else.
KM: How would you describe your writing process? How does revision figure into your process?
MT: I write best in the morning, when my mind is fresh. After dinner I return to it, clean it up. The following day I reread it—reading up to where I left off, making further changes. Then I start writing again.
When I have completed what I think is a manuscript, I take off for a few days, hole up somewhere and polish it. Then I send it off.
KM: Rejection or criticism can often stop writers before they start. How did you deal with rejection when you first started out?
MT: I did not study Writing at university, though writing was something I knew I wanted to do. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would give a writing programme greater consideration (than less) because, among other things, writing programmes provide a focused community, and writing, like any art, is most relevant when it comes out of the kinds of conversations a community provides. And that includes sharing in the rejections, as well as the acceptances. I was very much alone when I began reading the literary journals and sending them my work. I am certain that had I a peer group to read and comment on my work as I was writing it, as well as read and comment on the work of others, I would have been more comfortable with rejection, and more humbled by acceptance.
KM: You write in a variety of genres and often mix genres. How do you determine the genre for each piece or is it something that happens naturally?
MT: It took me a while to understand what I was doing as a writer, how my first two books are related to what I did as a child, and how the writing I wanted to contribute to was based more on sequences than discrete poems or stories. This caused me a lot of frustration in my early writing/publishing years because the poems I wrote were more documentary narrative than interior lyric, where my subjects spoke to the reader in casual tones, like the subjects in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (who spoke from their graves). Not poems in the way Lorna Crozier wrote poems, nor bpNichol, for that matter, but poems attuned to the rhythms of everyday people, whether cannery workers or touring musicians.
Generally speaking, the poets and poetry editors who read my early work never saw my work as poetry. Same with fiction writers and fiction editors, many of whom could not see the narrative sequences for the spoken poems that linked them. Add to that my inclusion of photos, drawings, handwritten notes and other aspects of the material culture that attend life in a cannery town or a touring punk rock band and you get more confusion, a situation that has me describing my earlier works more as collage and montage, and less as books of poetry (even though they were marketed that way).
My frustration with a traditional, genre-specific literary culture led me to a study of genre, and from there the idea that genre, as a category, is in itself its own form of content. This is something I took up in American Whiskey Bar (1997) and The Pornographer's Poem (1999), where I use the screenplay as a compositional device. For me, the written screenplay is a powerful form because it implies a transition--in my case, a transition from one genre to another (and how that transition can transform a character), but also the form's material transition into a motion picture and the inflated economy motion pictures are a part of. Indeed, to use a screenplay is to use the ways in which that form is perceived. In American Whiskey Bar (inspired as it was by Nabakov's Pale Fire, with the screenplay replacing the poem), what happens in the screenplay echoes the ostensibly non-fictive elements that encase it—from William Gibson's "Foreword" to my "Preface" to Monika Herendy's "Introduction" to Milena Jagoda's "Afterword". Same in The Pornographers Poem, where the narrator's film projects (his screenplays) and everyday life (rendered as screenplays) meld into one.
KM: What authors or books would you recommended to someone aspiring to be an writer?
MT: I would recommend the books aspiring writers keep rereading and ask that they consider why, specifically. If it is the prose, then I would suggest writing out those prose passages, allowing their rhythms to seep in, guide the aspiring writer to that which attracts her.
Here's an exercise: if, as a reader/writer, you come across a paragraph that excites you, rewrite it, and, once done, keep writing, see where it leads. I did something similar in the Spring 2009 issue of The Capilano Review, where I took three newspaper articles Malcolm Lowry wrote for the Vancouver Province newspaper (December, 1939), evicted the words and, like Lowry did at Dollarton, squatted in the remains, occupying his syntax and grammar with words of my own—words I wrote in response to his articles.
KM: Your funniest literary moment, if you have one.
MT: Most of these moments are unrepeatable. But one I can relate happened on April 5th, 1994, when I ran the Malcolm Lowry Room, a 99-seat lounge in the North Burnaby Inn. A patron had asked to do a Tribute to Charles Bukowski night, and I said yes. When the date rolled around, it was announced that Kurt Cobain had died, and everyone headed to the bars to talk about it--including mine. So there we were, one half of the room filled with weepy grungers, the other half filled with middle aged men and women in various states of Bukowskian dereliction. When the Bukowskites took the stage, the grungers cried even louder, and an argument ensued, with the grunge choir chanting "Kurt Co-bain!"; their counterparts, "Bu-kow-ski!"
KM: What are you working on now?
MT: There is always a new book, just as there is always a reason to do other things, other kinds of writing. At this point my writing practice has broadened to include book writing, essays (mostly on the visual arts), a blog, WEBSIT; teaching, ECUAD; curation, Free Concert. That's what I am working on now.
MICHAEL TURNER'S RECENT NOVEL
8 X 10, 2009, Doubleday Canada; Canadian First edition
Description from Amazon.ca
Fearless in form, Michael Turner’s 8x10 casts aside traditional narrative structure and characterization to delve deeper into the issues gnawing at today’s global society. Through a sequence of possibly intertwined events, Turner creates a challenging portrait of our modern age, drawing solely on the actions of people rather than their appearance—whether advertising executives or soldiers, tailors or doctors—they fall in love, have children, fight in wars, and flee their homes. In 8x10 there are no names, no racial or ethnic characteristics, and only a vague sense of time. Turner’s characters, familiar yet implacable, are both no one and everyone.
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