I’ll Talk, You’ll Fill that Notebook

Between Social Media & Poetry

Not too long ago, I came across Guillaume Morissette’s website, an online catalogue of all his poetry.
I asked whether we could meet and discuss writing. He said “yes, but could we email instead?”

He enjoys writing emails, see:

“guillaume morissette writes poetry and fiction and emails. he is a creative writing major at concordia, which is probably the closest you can get to majoring in sadness. his work has appeared in lickety split, synapse, papirmasse, headlight and other places also. his debut poetry collection is almost complete and he needs a publisher or a literary agent.
he lives in montreal. add him on facebook.”

Facebook soon became a virtual record of our game of email tag. We never talked offline, and Guillaume filled the virtual notepad, not me. But new acquaintances don’t talk anymore, do they? They facebook, they tweet, they email; rarely do they leave a voicemail. But really, Guillaume is actually very good with email: he replies instantly, carefully, and thoughtfully.

And his call for a publisher or literary agent isn’t in any way facetious – he is, like many writers here in Montreal, trying to get published. The creative community here is small, insular, and mostly devoted to music. But here are Guillaume’s thoughts on the matter.

Are you originally from Montreal?

I was born in a smaller town called Jonquière, which is maybe a five-hour drive from Montreal. I also lived in Québec City, for a little while. I don’t think I feel anything anymore when I think about either town. Comparing my life then to my life now feels like comparing a stapler to a wrench. My time in Québec City feels like a past life, or something. Or like the memory of a level in a videogame or, I don’t know.

Florence Broadhurst was an Australian designer who had a really intense and unusual life: she was a singer, an actress, a fashion designer, painter, charity worker, truck yard operator, wallpaper designer and other things. Her life was more like “a series of loosely interconnected phases,” as opposed to a single continuous motion towards death, which is interesting, I think.

I am also from a traditional French Canadian background. No one speaks English where I come from. I learned English not at school, but from watching The Simpsons on CBC. I used to think of my name as plain and boring until I moved here and latched onto the English-speaking community, and now most people butcher my name. Makes it interesting. I like that a lot.

What did you first start reading? What do you read now? What has changed?

Both my parents were avid readers, though eighty percent of what they read seemed to me demented, and evil, and useless, and toxic, or something. My dad read a lot of vague, unpractical oriental philosophy books, while my mom read romance novels. The French literature I was introduced to at school was uninteresting and very removed from my experiences as a human being. Those books made literature seem like some sort of fancy European invention from 1539, or something, kind of like those weird da Vinci machines.

I somehow ended up reading Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino and liked it and then later moved to Montreal and discovered English literature and that’s when my reading life exploded, sort of. Nowadays, I read stuff like Clarice Lispector, Raymond Queneau, Ann Beattie, Alain-Robbe Grillet, Fernando Pessoa, Dodie Bellamy, René Daumal, Jean Rhys, Pierre Guyotat, etc.

Formal training?

None. Unless you count ‘being broken down by life.’

I am not sure I work on any other level than intuitively or instinctively. I have good instincts and bad training, maybe. I am not motivated by form, I think. I am moderately motivated by qualities and the effects they produce. If I read a poem or a line that I think is sad or elegant or imaginative or some other thing, I usually try to reproduce that effect in a completely different context using different words in a short story or a poem or whatever it is I am working on at the moment.

What writers do you admire?

Any writer who doesn’t commit suicide, I guess. Writing, if you commit to it, is a life of temporarily alleviated loneliness. It requires extreme tolerance for sitting. I’ll probably go insane just from sitting a lot.

A writer, many times, needs to be isolated from the world in order to write — and I’m assuming you do this too — so how does this affect relationships?

I have a natural built-in resistance to solitude, I think. I feel lonely sometimes but not sadder because I feel lonely, if that makes sense. As a whole, I am more or less a lonely and obscure person, like a legendary bird or something. I am at my most productive when I am in a ‘fuck everyone’ sort of mood.

As to how this affects my relationships, it creates the need for me to schedule my life a lot like, “Okay I’ll work for six hours and then I’ll meet this person and later we’ll go to this random social thing. Sweet.” From time to time I party extra-hard to compensate, probably.

What is it like being a young writer in Montreal? Is the writing community supportive?

In general and not just in Montreal, I feel like music is over-promoted, which makes literature under-promoted. Some random band that has like, one EP on bandcamp with songs about flying coasters or some other thing, will get more free blog/zine/newspaper coverage than published writers, who will get maybe a quick review thing in The Mirror and a book launch in front of twenty people at Drawn & Quarterly. And that’s it. It’s even more difficult for emerging writers, since almost no one will willingly promote your work for free. Also most readings are a kind of inbreeding, performed in front of a crowd of mostly poets, English lit students or creative writing students. In Montreal, emerging writers have a hard time ‘breaking through’ that initial layer of zine submission / national-level writing contests /independent readings / etc. for those reasons.

There are a lot of things the lit community here could learn from the music community, and vice-versa. I feel it would be interesting to have the two communities switch places for maybe a week, have the lit people party a lot and pass out in a shitty bathroom somewhere, while the music people read things calmly to a small crowd at Sparrow, or something. Music people hang out too much at music events maybe.

Sometimes I’ll talk to a person at a reading and enjoy the conversation, which I will think of as stimulating and thought-provoking, but then later the person goes on stage and reads things and I feel nothing. Usually at this point, I start thinking about pudding and party music in an absent-minded manner while something zigzags inside my head. I feel like both communities could work harder to ensure there’s something to take away from the performances.

Let’s talk about performance vs. writing: how are the two different for you? What contributes to a successful reading, in your mind?

I don’t know, ‘aliveness’ maybe. That’s what I thought of first. I am not a performer, most writers aren’t. It’s really easy for a person in the crowd to tune out and think about spaceships, while another person is reading. Before a reading, I usually tell myself “You’re reading a story to a crowd of small children.” During a reading, I like to add emphasis on parts that I like, so that if a person has tuned out then that person can maybe ‘re-enter’ the piece at that moment.

Also I think it’s funnier and more interesting and more genuine if I mess up the timing or the delivery while reading or if I am awkward on the mic between pieces or something. I work hard on making sure my readings are a little shitty.

A big difference between a piece on the page and a piece performed in front of a crowd is the implications of a first-person ‘I’. If I refer to ‘I’ in a thing, a reader is still free to imagine the ‘I” as an old Spanish man or a confused narwhal, or something. If I am performing in front of a crowd, the ‘I’ is me, so the crowd has more information about who the ‘I’ is. I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder to relate to the ‘I’.

Many of your poems talk about – even talk to – different kinds of social media (Twitter and Facebook), or even to current computer technologies, like iTunes. Are these tools for connecting to an audience? Or do you feel as though these messages are just meaningless?

I don’t think of this as a focus on technology as much as being honest. If I reference Twitter, it’s only because I was using Twitter when the thing I am describing happened. If it happened while I was on the phone, I would say something like, “I was talking on the phone when –“

I think of social media as insane and hurricane-like. The thought of a line or a reference being someday obsolete doesn’t seem to me like a good enough reason to avoid using that material.

Is it important to cultivate a relationship with an audience? Do you believe a blog and Twitter can do so?

At this point in time, I don’t feel “cultivating an audience” is the same thing as “being successful.” I am interested in cultivating an audience if it allows me to publish books. I wonder if having a large audience comes with the same dizziness as having a lot of money, in that having a lot of money makes you want to have even more money and you end up doing things you wouldn’t have initially thought of as desirable.

I only tweet and blog rarely. I facebook a lot though. I’ll talk with anyone who adds me or asks me questions there. My feelings towards blogging and tweeting might change in the future, but at the moment I’d rather make sure that I have something to say before having an audience.

Blogs are, in a sense, a daily diary. You too have a blog and you publish a lot of your work there. What do you think about self-publishing? Does the blog help with your writing?

If you want to self-publish, you can and probably should. My main interest in finding a publishing house is maybe counseling and companionship, not financial success or broader distribution. Having a blog doesn’t help or hinder or affect my writing or creativity level, I feel. Other people’s blogs help my writing and creativity level.

But is communicating with your readers important? Or connecting with other writers? Or can a readership stifle your creativity: readers expecting certain things of you, while you just want to experiment more with your writing?

I am okay with seeing a person evolve over time. If I were to go in a new direction, I don’t think it would be out of the blue or because I was bored, but because my instincts were telling me that this particular piece needed to be expressed that way, I think. The thing about feedback and criticism is that ultimately you can choose to agree or disagree with it. The same applies to expectations. At a certain point, it becomes difficult to discuss literature. To discuss it is like discussing a garden, in that the comments probably reflect more the taste and preferences of the person looking at the garden than flaws in the garden itself.

As for communicating with readers and other writers, I think I am going in that direction, just not as aggressively as I could at the moment. My feelings towards this might change once I have a book to market. I don’t think it’s important or unimportant to network aggressively; even if you have, like, seven followers on twitter it’s still possible to publish books. If you think you feel you would enjoy the responsibility of a crowd and feel it would give you more leverage overall, then you should work really hard to build a readership, I guess.

You “write emails”?

I like emails a lot, both writing and reading. I am grateful to anyone who allows me to write emails to them. Emails are vital to my thought process in that they allow me to assemble and collect my own thoughts, then see through them.

If I am writing a short story, but feel stuck and don’t know where to go with it anymore, I usually switch to poetry. If I get stuck writing poetry, I switch to emails. After a few emails I’ll try poetry again. If I get unstuck writing poetry, I usually end up going back to the short story later.

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