Halifax-based poet Zach Wells first graced the pages of Vancouver Review with his send-up of Shane Koyczan’s widely loved Olympic poem “We Are More”. This was perfectly in keeping with the VR’s contrarian tilt but earned us some predictable “tut-tuts” from many genteel cultural quarters—folks who felt it was such a great leap forward to have a spoken word poet deliver a heartfelt and upbeat vision of the nation on a world stage that any “criticism” was the moral equivalent of kicking a puppy.
He was recently in Vancouver where we caught up with him in the midst of a vacation from his “other career” with Via Rail. We met on Granville Island for a quick chat and portrait session.
VRM: Your piece for the VR in response to Shane Koyczan’s Olympic poem “We Are More” was perfectly timed to make it look like you had kicked a puppy. His popularity has since skyrocketed. And there’s no denying he’s infectious in performance. I think your response still holds up. How do you feel about it all now?
ZW: Well, he gets up on his pulpit and he does his thing and people really respond in a way that I find mystifying because the writing itself is so cliché-ridden. And the performances I find over the top, almost hammy.
VRM: One argument goes that slam (or “performance poetry” as it was once called) is bringing people to poetry.
ZW: Well he’s bringing people to his brand of poetry, for sure. But I don’t think it’s a gateway drug to Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost! I’d be amazed if people were going from that to really serious, excellent poetry.
VRM: There’s a much thornier discussion to be had about what constitutes “serious, excellent poetry” but I’m a photographer so let’s steer clear of that for now! What I do know is that I was introduced to performance poetry in the ’80s and really enjoyed it because it seemed to entail real risk. The work was memorized and it bordered on a kind of guerrilla theatre in all manner of spaces. It seemed borderless. But I never saw much of it unless I was directly connected to the poets, some of whom I had on my radio show at UBC at the time. Now there are slam poetry nights everywhere!
ZW: The problem with a lot of the current more generic spoken word stuff is that there’s no real sense of risk. It follows the same kind of speech patterns, the same kind of syncopations, the same stances and preoccupations. It’s really genre work. But there are a lot of interesting people doing it, like Catherine Kidd in Montreal. She does really neat stuff and it doesn’t in any way resemble the genre conventions of the slam poem. She’s done one-woman shows driven by her own writing which are truly excellent.
In a low-key kind of way, I fall in between the spoken word ethos and the typical anti-social poet thing; I trust the words to stand for themselves, but without droning on too much in the dreaded “poet voice”. I try to deliver the work in an expressive and interpretive manner rather than striving for some kind of phony neutrality. I often end up memorizing my work because I do rehearse a lot, so it’s more accidental than intentional. A product of rehearsing is memorization, especially if the work is moderately memorable!
As far as the publications go, I write individual poems and assemble them sometime after. Typically, these days, my collections span ten to twelve years and there’s no intentional construction to the book as a whole until I sit down after the fact to assemble it.
VRM: You work for Via Rail. I can’t think of a more “Canadian” job right now.
ZW: I work in on board services and I’ve been working for them for twelve years. I started as a senior service attendant which is kind of a joke because there’s no such thing as a junior service attendant. So you get a promotion as soon as you’re hired. I just recently became qualified as a service manager, the person who’s responsible for the whole train after the baggage car.
VRM: You recently expressed an interest in becoming an engineer.
ZW: I applied for training, but it’s a selective program and they were looking more for people from Montreal and Toronto. No one in my region got chosen so I wasn’t too disappointed.
VRM: Is there an intersection between your daily work and your poetry or writing?
ZW: I worked for an airline loading planes in the Arctic off and on for seven years. Many poems came specifically out of that work. I haven’t written a lot about working on the train but I’ve been working in the transportation sector since I was nineteen and I think there’s a shared restlessness that isn’t always explicit between my interests in work and my interests in writing. The railroad work hasn’t appeared in the writing that much but once I retire from the railroad, there’s gonna be book of anecdotes, probably not in the form of poetry, because its a very story-rich environment. But a lot of those stories I’m not at liberty to tell right now!
VRM: It might seem a romantic notion on the surface: riding the rails with a poet!
ZW: (laughs) But an awful lot of it boils down to bodily fluids! Long distance transportation with people of various ages and ailments. So what you encounter is often the opposite of romantic.
VRM: Plus the fact that train travel has become a real luxury thing.
ZW: Yeah. With Rocky Mountaineer et al. who really cater to upmarket tourists. And Via has introduced its Prestige Class, with really high-end rooms. People I know who sell tickets tell of people booking $12,000 round trips without batting an eye. Via also has an onboard entertainment program. It’s mostly musicians, but they’ve done a couple of special poetry trains as well. It wasn’t their idea. Some poets came to Via in the off-season so there weren’t too many people to alienate with poetry!
VRM: Who would you most like to offend?
ZW: There aren’t too many left in the writing world whom I haven’t offended, sometimes even accidentally! There’s a perception out there that it’s my game plan, but more and more I’m withdrawing from the trivial political world of writing and publishing. I’ve got my job, I’ve got union work—I’m shop steward in my union local—and I’ve got a family. A lot of people in this business are nuts and it’s super easy to offend those people and they’ll form klatches to come after you! But I’ve never depended on it for my livelihood, so I’ve never had much of a stake in being a professional writer. I’ve made a joke out of my “Career Limiting Moves”. It’s been the title of my blog since I started it, but some people don’t realize that it’s a joke. I always get a laugh when I “overhear” someone on the internet earnestly blathering about it as if I was in earnest. It’s like throwing chunk of red meat into the water and seeing who comes for a meal.
VRM: What kind of conversations do you least like to overhear?
ZW: I used to live in Vancouver and I remember taking a flight either to or from; I was in either the Ottawa or Montreal airport and overheard people taking about how Vancouver really is a “world class city”, conversations that are a mixture of insecurity and braggadocio. So anything that smacks of boastful pride in personal accomplishments or neurotic nationalism.
VRM: I also find that the current obsession with “Foodie culture” replaces the possible café conversations about real culture and real ideas.
ZW: I think that’s true. Personally, I eat to live.
VRM: What do you think of when you hear the words “Think Tank”?
ZW: It makes me thing of the Fraser Institute.
VRM: …and “Thought Leaders”?
ZW: I like that spoof of the TED Talks that was recently done by This is That on CBC. An easy target maybe, but the “thought leader” phenomena is pretty annoying.
VRM: Which begs the question: Most egregious abuse of the English language?
ZW: Did you say that intentionally? You also said “which begs the question” earlier when we were talking. That’s one! It’s an incorrect usage. “Begging the question” is a rhetorical trope, when you pose something as a question when the answer is already presupposed. When people say “which begs the question” what they mean is that the question is begging to be asked. But I’ve given up on it because the other usage has become so common it’s virtually an accepted usage now. But this is the history of language. Errors get codified as acceptable. And the “fewer” vs. “less” thing really bothers me. But I try to suppress these reactions because I’ve come to realize just how badly it can derail an otherwise potentially productive conversation. My mom is a grammar maven and she sometimes just ends conversations by pointing out the errors people are making. Rarely do those errors hamper comprehension about what’s being said. But, when I’m editing, I show zero tolerance!
VRM: Most despised buzzwords/phrases?
ZW: Easy. “Going forward” and “reaching out”. Can we just stop?
VRM: Do you like any current Canadian music?
ZW: Oh, yes! Mathias Kom’s Burning Hell, an itinerant band most recently based in Newfoundland, but Mathias and his partner/bandmate Ariel Sharratt live on PEI now. He writes circles around most poets in the country, with varying degrees of whimsy and irony. They’ve got a cult following and they’re big in Europe! They set a record for the most gigs in different countries in a single day. It’s unofficial because there weren’t enough attendees at each of the shows to qualify. You had to have 500 people at a show or something like that for it to count.
VRM: Why shouldn’t we all just move to Halifax?
ZW: Well, the real estate is a lot cheaper there but there aren’t that many good jobs, so be cautious about moving there without a plan. It’s been good to me and practical. I get to work in ten minutes and then I work for three or four days. I’m a country boy originally. It’s good. It’s not great. It’s not “AWESOME!”
But for working as a writer it’s beneficial to be in a smaller centre because when the funding institutions are spreading the wealth around, smaller centres can get a good share because I think there’s a desire to make the process a little more “pan-Canadian” than it truly is. The writing world isn’t pan-Canadian. It’s mostly a big city kind of business. I’ve done well by the Canada Council but I don’t know whether it’s by virtue of being good at grant writing or if there’s somebody there saying “Hey! This guy’s in Nova Scotia! Let’s fund him!”
And with that, Zach and I moved around the tourist-packed alleys of the much-admired Federal Project that is Granville Island to do some portraits. The occasional onlooker wondered if I was photographing somebody famous. Well…sure.