Posted on 02/28/2019 at 08:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Poet Chris Bailey entered an MFA program with an ambitious goal: complete four manuscripts in those two years; have one more on the way; and acquire an agent.
Check, check, and almost check — instead of an agent, he received an acceptance for his poetry collection from a publisher.
But when we interviewed Bailey about how he’d arrived at the point where newspapers were reviewing What Your Hands Have Done, there was no shortage of humility and self-deprecation in his answers.
His early work wasn’t great, he says —“not even close to decent.”
He put in the time and effort to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it, yet he’s quick to credit the generosity and patience of his mentors, editors, and friends for his eventual success.
Where did that drive, work ethic, and thick skin come from? We’d venture to guess that his day job as a fisherman — not a hobbyist, but one who fishes commercially on the sea — had something to do with it.
But here’s Bailey’s take on his journey.
SADYE: When did you first decide to seek publication?
CHRIS: I was seeking publication of poems and stories right from the jump.
Did it with this confidence had only by someone doing something that is very new to them and without the knowledge they aren’t very good.
Doesn’t everyone want to get something published when they first start at writing?
Isn’t that part of the dream when you begin to learn any new skill or start any new task — that you’ll do it well and bring it to where the logical conclusion will be, whether you’re building a table or hauling lobster gear, or writing about the time your uncle told you to go fuck yourself?
SADYE: Is there a particular message in your poetry you’d like readers to absorb?
CHRIS: I met a man in Halifax when doing my launch at SMU. Sean Kennedy.
One of the benefits of having a book and touring around is I meet people who engage with and consider my work in a much more intelligent fashion than I can.
I sometimes fancy myself smart and then I talk to someone and realize my dumbness on any number of things.
Sean hosted the launch I did there alongside Steve McOrmond and Annick MacAskill, and he gave these wonderful, thoughtful introductions when starting the readings off.
On the car ride to or from the reading, Sean said part of what he liked about my book was how it looked at masculinity.
He said, “Just because a fella says fuck doesn’t mean he don’t feel.”
SADYE: What is your poetry-writing process like?
CHRIS: My writing process is pretty straightforward. I think most are.
I write on paper first, then type on the computer. A chair is involved. It’s not a very comfy chair, but it works as intended. ...
Then I send the poem around looking for edits and praise after I stare at it awhile. Usually it’s dark out and I’m tired.
During last lobster season, I’d read poems from very different poetry books by very different poets, and see if anything got knocked loose, and think about what happened that day, the day before. Was there something said or a story told?
This was done at the end of the day, maybe an hour or two before bed.
My thinking is writing is like any other job. You’ve got to put in your hours, and some days will be better than others.
Days where you don’t write are as important as the ones you do. You can’t kick your ass on the treadmill every day.
Even the Rock takes an off-day, right?
SADYE: What has been your proudest or most rewarding moment as a poet?
CHRIS: I was in my mother’s kitchen with her, and she was cooking supper. It was pork chops and potatoes.
This is fall on Prince Edward Island, right before I did any touring or anything, and we were at the table and the sky is clear out the west window above the sink.
She read the book. She read it and it got her memory going and so she ended up telling me stories about growing up, about my siblings. Things she never really talked about before.
Dad likes to talk about a lot of things and it’s usually him, if anyone, telling me stories about the past.
Mom has a tendency toward the present in her storytelling. What happened today or yesterday. How my nephew’s hockey went, or cans of tuna are on sale here for this much.
So for her to talk about a past I didn’t experience — a grandfather I never met, her childhood, a brother gone before I happened along, how things were in the family in simpler times — that was as much reward as it was gift.
SADYE: Have you encountered any misconceptions about poetry that you wish people wouldn’t believe?
CHRIS: There can be a belief that the poem is true to the point of documentary or the narrator is the writer. A shortened perceived distance.
This isn’t a bad thing, really. I’m guilty of encouraging it and also have disliked people buying into it.
If I’ve done my job right, you’ll believe everything written has happened or could’ve happened like this. The best lies sound like truth, or in some way tell the truth.
Warren Zevon, talking about songwriting, said something like there’s no fiction and nonfiction sections in the music aisle.
It’s the same for poetry.
SADYE: Can you tell us an interesting story about your work as a fisherman?
CHRIS: I was fishing mackerel with my father and younger brother years ago.
To get into the mechanics of it, beyond that there are lead weights on the lines with many hooks and that there are multiple tanks that hold five hundred to six hundred pounds of fish, is something that would take up too much time.
Anyway, if either one of us was going to say to our father it was time to go in, it would be my little brother.
He was more vocal when there was no fish, and I guess I would be more resigned to put in the hours Dad wanted to put in. ...
Dad had said, “Fuck it, let’s pack it up and go in,” mad at my little brother for the suggestion.
I offered to wash down the boat (there is a hose, it sprays seawater to clean up the blood and scales and shit), and my little brother said he would do it.
I didn’t argue. I went to the cabin and sat at the table, Dad at the wheel. You can tell he’s mad. Men in my family can get right cranky or sour. They can get the sooks on pretty quick sometimes.
Dad had the sooks on. He looked back and my brother wasn’t washing down the deck, but spraying seagulls following the boat.
“Well,” Dad said, “I hope he’s well-hung between the legs, because he’s got fuck-all between the ears.”
Dad was all grins. I’ve never seen anyone make themselves so happy so quickly before.
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