The Walrus Foundation joins the Ontario Media Development Corporation in celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Trillium Book Award, Ontario’s leading literary prize. At walrusmagazine.com/trillium, we’ve grouped the finalists for the 2012 Trillium Book Award and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry alongside a select collection of past winners and Walrus contributors, including Margaret Atwood, Austin Clarke, Thomas King, and Karen Solie.
Here on The Walrus Blog, we’ll be publishing a series of written interviews with this year’s English-language contenders. First up: Ken Babstock, nominated for his book Methodist Hatchet. His poem “Hoffos at MOCCA, Hester at ACCA” appears in the June 2012 issue of the magazine.
Born: Burin, Newfoundland
Resides: Toronto, Ontario
Trillium Book Award–nominated work: Methodist Hatchet (2011)
Trillium Book Award for Poetry–winning work: Airstream Land Yacht (2006)
Selected additional works: Mean (1999), Days Into Flatspin (2001), Methodist Hatchet (2011)
Related Reading: “Review: Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet” by Nick Mount (May 2011)
Biography: Ken Babstock is the son of a United Church clergyman and a nurse. A childhood move to the Ottawa Valley, he has said, “robbed” him of his Newfoundland accent. He’s also confessed to becoming interested in poetry as a means to distance himself from the religious language of his youth. He dropped out of Montreal’s Concordia University at age nineteen, then spent the next twelve years working in factories, forestry, and construction. In 1997, his poems “The Interior” and “What We Didn’t Tell the Medic” won gold for poetry at the National Magazine Awards. Two years later, he published his first collection, Mean, for which he received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Babstock has since been short listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. He is a former member of the poetry faculty at the Banff Centre for the Arts and a former poetry editor of House of Anansi Press.
Joseph MacKinnon: Methodist Hatchet has made a big splash in the Canadian poetry world, where some have compared you to W.H. Auden. Can you tell us about the collection?
Ken Babstock: It’s a collection of separate poems which seem to want to have little to do with one another. What I mean is, there’s an undercurrent of severe disbelief or negative valuation swirling around each discrete poem. I’ve tried to bind poems together by virtue of each one’s will to be divided against itself. Like pushing the wrong end of two magnets together.
Joseph MacKinnon: How did you react to your Trillium nomination for Methodist Hatchet? You’ve already won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry; was the feeling the same or different the second time around?
Ken Babstock: I was thrilled to hear Methodist Hatchet was short listed. I hugged my wife. I tried to convince my four-year-old son something great had happened. He was having none of it and went back to hitting me with a shoebox.
Joseph MacKinnon: How did winning the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2004 affect the trajectory of your writing career?
Ken Babstock: Of course it was no small help to be handed a cheque that could be put against the cost of living for some time. It meant I could continue without the dogs of poverty yapping at the gate. And of course, for a time, one can internalize a sense of having been at the very least forgiven for having devoted so much time and energy to what amounts to a fairly bizarre life choice.
Joseph MacKinnon: You’re no longer eligible for the poetry award, which considers the first, second, or third work of an “emerging” poet. How does it feel to have graduated from one award to the next? Do you think your past success will help, harm or have no effect on your chances now?
Ken Babstock: The big difference now is finally seeing my poems in direct, lethal combat with works of fiction. I’ve dreamed of this. Apples and oranges, schmapples and schmoranges. It. Is. On.
Joseph MacKinnon: You grew up in the Ottawa Valley. Do you have any imagistic anchors of the area that have provided you with a stimulus that you couldn’t have acquired elsewhere?
Ken Babstock: I was raised in a few different towns in Ontario. My imagination would, therefore, carry the impress of its geographical and cultural context in all the ways you’d expect. I guess what I mean is, I can’t be “from” somewhere else. But being from here conceals to oneself what it is about here that has contributed to any uniqueness in the writing. I’d like to say the colour of sumac in fall has remained totemic to me, but really, what do I know? Perhaps the vaguely Swedish, emptied-out, utilitarian interiors of the LCBO had more effect on me.
Joseph MacKinnon: You have quipped about mourning the loss of your birthright: a Newfoundland accent. Would you say you’re entitled to fake it if the need arises? And if so, can you fake it?
Ken Babstock: No and no.
Joseph MacKinnon: For the past year, you’ve been living in Berlin on a monthly stipend. How does writing full-time compare to past (or meaner) stages in your career — when you were straddling disparate worlds (i.e., writing poetry and working strenuous factory and forestry jobs)? Do you have a stronger yield without calluses?
Ken Babstock: I still have to earn a living with various teaching, editing, and freelance jobs that come and go in unpredictable ways. I don’t see literary production and other forms of labour as “disparate worlds.”
Joseph MacKinnon: Are you working on any new poems?
Ken Babstock: We come home from Berlin next week. It’s been a really wonderful year for us as a family and for my work as well. I think the physical and cultural displacement helped steer me away from some of my more predictable gestures and stances and tones. Which is to say I wrote a longer poem I can only describe as strange… [It] is a series of thirty-nine sonnets spoken from the derelict NSA surveillance station on the summit of Teufelsberg. Where the couplet should occur in each sonnet there is a report of an aerial collision between light aircraft and unnamed objects somewhere in what was the USSR.