Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Out of the Shadows... Luke Maynard

Have you had a chance to recover from the Victoria Spoken Word Festival yet? We hope so, because Tongues of Fire keeps rolling along strongly, with the long awaited return Luke Maynard to the ToF stage. Luke used to be a consistant force on the open mic, and returns now to feature in celebration of his new album "Desolation Sound." We had a chance to chat with him... here you go:

"At least one person has called you a modern day Leonard Cohen. What do you say to such a statement?"

I’d say it’s an incredibly generous comparison. I’m flattered by it, though a little bewildered, because Leonard's still alive and well, and more than capable of being his own modern-day version of himself.

What I’d take it to mean, maybe, is that the path my early career has taken shares some resonance with his. We’re both products of the academy, both university English majors, and I think that background shapes the material; we both straddle lines between poetry, song, and storytelling, and sometimes like to kick them down; and we’re both “late bloomers” as far as professional music goes. I don’t think Leonard was published, as a poet or songwriter, before he was thirty, and I’m not much ahead of that.

I think that kind of time horizon brings with it a meditative patience, and I’m most flattered by the comparison because it reassures me that I’m not too old to be reaching this point. It’s easy to look at all the Canadians whose careers take off in their mid-teens—Justin Bieber or Avril Lavigne—and say that if you haven’t made a place for yourself by twenty-five, you’re not going to. But Leonard’s older than Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, you know. He’s older than Superman, for that matter. He just took his time, took a different road, and every time I hear myself in connection with him, it reaffirms that the fast lane isn’t the only road to success. Sometimes it isn’t even the best way.

“Let's slap a label on you: Poet? Performer? Spoken Word Artist? Slam Poet?”

If I have to pick one, “performer” is as good as any, because whatever I choose to do in seclusion (what’s he building in there?), it’s the performing that activates it. I write poetry, songs, stories; I make up crazy ideas, and discover connections between things, between people. But it’s the performance that gives those things life: the act of sharing your work with people is the last step toward finishing it, I think.

Even when you put something on paper, it becomes a kind of performance as soon as you share it with another person. The difference between an amateur poet and a professional poet has nothing to do with “success,” however you choose to measure that: amateur poets are the ones who write it down, then slide it back under their mattress. Professionals are the ones who find a way to get it to people. By my logic, J.D. Salinger was one of the best writers in American history, but for the last forty-five years of his life he was an incredibly talented amateur. Whatever you decide to create in the world, sharing it is what makes it real. That’s why I’d say performer. Every other word describes a genre I work in, but not really what I’m trying to do there.

“And let's take that label off (cuz labels aren't nice): now who are you? How do you see yourself in the world?”

That’s a tough one; it’s hard to really define yourself without a label of one sort or another. That’s why we have labels, right? To describe what makes us different from one another? I guess without a label I’m just a passing observer. I’ve come here to take note of people and the world around me, figure out ways to understand them, come up with some ideas and reflections, and spit them back into the world that spawned them. That idea-charged spittle is my contribution to the world, and one of the ways I pay admission for the ride. I imagine most people are exactly the same—my ideas are just the kind that rhyme and sound best when sung.

“How did you feel the first time you stepped up a mic to read what you had written? How long ago was that?”

I couldn’t even remember. I’ve been an indie showbiz kid my whole life. My Dad was a working musician, and I grew up around stages, microphones, performers. I’ve never really had to deal with stage fright, and being in front of people feels like the most natural thing in the world. Poetry and music don’t come to me quite that naturally, or at least not without a degree of toil, work and refinement; but once all the hard work is done, putting more people in the room doesn’t make it any harder for me.

“What's the next poetry-related goal you want to fulfill?”

On a large scale, I’d like to put literary study and creative writing back together in a real and permanent way. I think everyone who writes poetry could benefit from reading more of it, thinking critically about it, studying the work of different periods, studying the language we write in. At the same time, writing creatively should be a sacred obligation for people like me who make their living researching and analyzing the work of others. Neglect either one of these, and your understanding of the other will suffer.

As academic disciplines, English literature and creative writing are a bit like an awkward senior prom couple: they invariably split up after high school, and seem to have little to do with each other after that. At some schools, they’re represented by different departments in different buildings, and the crosstalk between them is about as awkward as a supermarket conversation with an old ex. I’d really like to see that come to an end someday: one of my professional ambitions is to make a poet out of every scholar, and a scholar out of every poet.
On a smaller scale, in terms of future projects, I’d like to try my hand at collaborating a bit more, especially with local poets and musicians I really admire. Writing has always been a lonely process for me, and working in seclusion for the last year and change has made it more so. I’m fortunate enough to know some incredibly talented people, and I’d love to put our heads together on some material so that I can take partial credit for their brilliance.

“Can you tell us about the poem you haven't written yet?”

I could ruminate on the future—on the direction I might someday go in, or the ideas that haven’t yet come to me...but I imagine it’s more interesting (and accurate) to give you a snapshot of the work I’m trying to finish in the next day and a half: literally, I’m working on a Ginsberg-esque poem for this Thursday’s show on the advent of the big box megastore. Locally speaking, it’s timely because of all the construction at Uptown, but it’s less a critique of specific franchises or stores, and more a critique of the new ways we’re coming to think about commerce.

“What are the subjects that are really engage you?”

What engages me the most, and what I spend the most time writing on, is people, and specifically, what and how they think. We live in a time and place of unprecedented choice: people’s opinions, morals, and value systems are more diverse than they’ve ever been, and it’s getting harder and harder to understand other people unless you’re lucky enough to match their worldview yourself. Making sense of people to other people is one of the gifts that writing gives us, and I can’t think of many things more engaging than putting that to good use.

”We run your poetry through the ice-cream maker: what flavour do we get at the business end?”
That’s easy: Baskin-Robbins Banana Nut ice cream. Now before you accuse me of shilling a brand name, there are reasons for it:

First, it’s a composite mix of things. It’s not homogenous like chocolate or vanilla—it’s made up of all sorts of substances. Nuts. Fruit. The ice cream. The ripple. If all I ever wrote was haiku, vanilla might be a better fit.

Second, the flavour is discontinued—or if they sell it at all, it’s in tiny regional communities in out-of-the-way-places. My poetry feels (to me) like it has a discontinued oldness to it—it comes out antiqued, like a car you can’t buy parts for anymore. I polish my pieces, but even then they don’t come out looking shiny and clean like a spaceship from the new Star Wars movies. They come out looking like a spaceship from the original trilogy: beat-up, covered in dirt, scratched and just the way I like them.

Finally, there’s a famous story about Howard Hughes and Baskin-Robbins Banana Nut ice cream. It’s a beautiful tragedy in miniature, the way Hughes was a beautiful tragedy on a scale larger than life. Ask me about Howard Hughes sometime. I love to tell stories.

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