An Interview with Asa Boxer

Asa Boxer’s poems and articles have appeared in Poetry London , Arc, Books in Canada, Maisonneuve, and Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ). He is a past winner of the CBC/enRoute poetry competition and his 2007 collection The Mechanical Bird, published by Véhicule Press, won the Canadian Authors Association Prize. Boxer is the son of poet Avi Boxer, who was active in the Montreal writing scene through the 1950s and 60s. (A fascinating memoir piece by Asa on his father can be found here.)         Asa Boxer lives in Montreal. This interview was conducted via email by Michael Carbert.

As the son of a writer, was writing always something you did or aspired to do? How did you get started? 

Writing initially attracted me as a way of bonding with my father. But it was something I didn’t seriously attempt till after his early death at 54 when I was 13. And even then, I’d say it took some four years before I decided that this was what I wanted to do in life. Until then, I’d wanted to be an astrophysicist or maybe an archaeologist. The deciding factor was a desire to redeem my father’s work, to give his life purpose by continuing what he’d started. He’d said that his desire was that I outshine him in everything. How I got started is a two part story. My very first emotionally driven attempts at writing took place in La Macaza in the Laurentians. One summer when I was sixteen, often when it was raining, I’d steal these extra-long, extra-slim cigarettes from my aunt and hide under a cousin’s porch with a note pad and a pen trying with all the power in my lungs to get a satisfying drag of smoke out of those impossibly feminine cigarettes. Needless to say, I was not yet writing poetry. Kissing and being cool were far more important areas of practice. And for a good number of years I think I’d confused the construction of elaborate pickup lines with poetry. This is why the question of how I got started is a two part story. Michael Harris was teaching at Dawson College when I studied there. Being an admirer of his work, I came to his office and professed my interest in writing poetry. He responded with something along the lines of, “Come back in a week with about a dozen poems and we’ll take it from there.” I did not have a dozen poems, so I threw together what I could in that short time and brought them to him. He said, “These are shit. You know that?” “Yes,” I said, “I know they’re shit. That’s why I’m here.” I recall a grunt of approval at my response. I learned a lot from Harris over many years although there was nothing programmatic about the process. It was an apprenticeship in the sense that one learns by observing the master. But all the learning (and more importantly, living) I was left to do on my own. I started writing poetry only many years later when my primary interests turned from inner preoccupations to outer ones, to an interest in others instead of in self.

Can you comment on poetic influences aside from Harris or your father? What books or authors were particularly important to you as you embarked on your “apprenticeship”?

My first enthusiasm for poetry came through the folk songs my father used to play on his turntable. Although his LP collection was varied, the songs that appealed to me as a pre-adolescent were those sung by Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Looking back, I was attracted to those songs that conveyed an enchanting mood and evoked a sense of tradition or connection with something ancient and collective. Later, as poetry became more of a focus for me, I was taken most by Eliot and Blake. I did not have an interest in many contemporary poets. What I did read in journals like Arc, The Malahat Review and Fiddlehead (not to mention The New Yorker and Poetry) were not what I was looking for. Where Canada was concerned I had an appreciation for the best of Layton, Klein, Pratt, Cohen. Among my favourite works were Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windless Night” as well as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” In my early twenties I was a great fan of Wordsworth; for a time, of the Beats. I had a romance with Neruda, flirtations with Wallace Stevens. The Syrian poet, Al-Maghut knocked my socks off, as did the Israeli, Yehuda Amichai. Now my allegiances are for the best of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson (especially “In Memoriam”), Coleridge (especially “Kubla Khan”), Blake, Yeats, Eliot (excluding “The Waste Land”), Larkin, Heaney, and Ted Hughes. The Canadian poets most influential of late have all been published at one time or another by Michael Harris or Carmine Starnino at Signal Editions. David Solway’s Saracen Island and Ricardo Sternberg’s Invention of Honey were especially interesting to me, as was anything by Eric Ormsby.  

I’m struck by the unity of The Mechanical Bird in terms of tone and voice. With few exceptions the poems are controlled and coiled, their energies and images patiently waiting for the reader to unpack them. Can you discuss how you developed this kind of voice, which might be characterized as cool and restrained, as opposed to one more lyrical and expressive?

I write what I like to read. And I write what I think would be of interest to people who occupy themselves with things other than literature. I don’t put much stock in opinions and I detest issue-driven work, or work that is self-righteous or an expression of some contemporary piety. I return again and again to those poems that resonate most and ask myself questions about them and how they survive the centuries. Though languages are always in flux, metaphors have by far the best survival rate. The wonder of metaphors is how they can tease subtle ideas into the realm of the obvious. The confessional lyric seems dead for the moment, exhausted. It is a mode, a pose, a dishonest form. People write this stuff to show they are members of the sensitive tribe, that they have hearts to be worshipped alongside Rilke’s, Neruda’s, Tsvetaeva’s and Cohen’s. I do not consider myself a great heart or a great mind or a great writer, and I write with these principles always in mind. If this sounds disingenuous, I’ll admit that I want to be thought of as a genius with a great heart, etc., but this is not the same as buying into it. Instead my focus is on trying to understand the experiences and perspectives of others, their collective yearnings and apprehensions.

What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to?   

Well, I’ve been working on some fanciful poems in the voice of the medieval traveller, Sir John Mandeville. The rhythms and the expressions have an antique flavour and the point of view is as bizarre as the middle ages. I’ve tried to make an old-school back-pack character, half shyster, half guide, and all round survivor. And I’ve put together a very short verse-play on Hades and Persephone entitled, “The Pomegranate.” It’s a domestic dispute that takes mythological proportions. Wait till these two get going; imagine mighty Cerberus whimpering in the corner.

You stated before that writing was for you a way of bonding with your father. Have you given any thought as to what Avi Boxer might have made of The Mechanical Bird?

I think he would have asked me why I wasn’t like the other boys he sent me to school with. “What’s wrong with being a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a CPA?”—I imagine him remarking. “I always told you I was a role-model of how not to behave.” He may have quipped that he was far younger when he made his debut on the Can Lit scene at age 14. What took me so long? Then he’d probably have thrown an arm around me and asked where I was taking him to celebrate. That said, I hate dealing in hypotheticals; I most probably would have never written were my father still alive, or if I’d have written, it would have been entirely different because the motivations would have been of another order.