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Interview, published in Surface and Symbol newspaper, Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005

Q&A: Poet John Oughton

By Susana Molinolo

How did you become a poet?
I loved reading poetry as soon as we got it in our school anthologies. It spoke to me in a way that nothing else had. But it hadn't really occurred to me to try writing it until high school, when a girlfriend suggested we co-write a poem. I wrote it, and then I was hooked. It was the first time I'd found something I was good at. I produced two little self-published chapbooks while still in high school, using typewriters and duplicating machines.

What books can you recommend to high school students interested in pursuing a creative writing career?
I'd recommend they collect two kinds of books: one is writing that inspires them — especially in anthologies that offer a wide range of styles and approaches. A Canadian anthology of love poems published in the 60s, Love Where the Nights Are Long, really got me going. The other book to have is a "craft" book that teaches you the ropes of the genre(s) you want to try. I'd recommend Babette Deutsch's The Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms as a great source of definitions of examples of poetic forms and techniques.

What are some to-do's that might benefit a writer at the very start of their career?
Read a lot of other writers. See how they handle themes, images, choices. Borrow from the best (not their exact words, but their methods). Read your own work out loud, and revise for the sound as well as the sense. Push yourself: try writing from the viewpoint of a very different person, an animal, an object. Try some classical forms. Try experiments, too, to stretch yourself: take a line from another poet to start your own, or try an "intertextual" poem… write a poem with 13 words chosen from another poem, or write lines that could fit between the lines of a poem you like, etc. Don't get stuck in writing only one way or only about yourself.

Some writers do lots of books readings; others shy away from them and hope the work speaks for itself. Why do you do readings?
I love the personal connection with the audience while I read - hearing their reactions, getting their questions and comments. It brings the work alive, making a poem a conversation rather than a solitary act. Since many of my poems aim for some humour, it's helpful to hear what gets laughs. Public performance is also a great test of a poem and each of its lines - sometimes I know after a reading that something's really not working, and needs work (or deletion). Also, the experience has taught me to read well - loudly, clearly, slowly, avoiding mumbling, excess explanations or paper-shuffling, so that improves the response I get.

What are you currently working on?
I'm not a very prolific poet — my four books have been rather widely spaced over 30 years of publishing. But I've written quite a few new poems since my last book. So I felt it might be time for a Selected and New Poems that would give readers who don't know my work (or know only a little of it) more of an overview. I'm editing that when I have time. It's interesting finding which of my old poems I still like and which I can no longer abide. I'm only including the ones I feel are worth the trouble of re-typing.

John Oughton's works copyright © to the author.

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