An Interview with Robert Earl Stewart

Robert Earl Stewart’s poems have appeared in various Canadian and international journals, including Monday Night, nthposition, Iota, Magma, Rampike, and This Magazine. His first book of poems, Something Burned Along the Southern Border,waspublished in 2009 by Mansfield Press and has recently been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry. Stewart lives in Windsor, Ontario. This interview was conducted via email by Marko Sijan.

The poems in Something Burned Along the Southern Border range deftly from the surreal to the deeply personal. How does the collection reconcile these discrete poetic modes? Is there a purpose behind the fusing of the two?

I’m not sure there’s really any reconciliation of the surreal and the personal happening in the book. They coexist seamlessly inside of me; I think they can coexist seamlessly on the page. I don’t think at any time I made the conscious decision to make certain poems surreal and certain others “deeply personal,” though the poems in the “Flicker Rate” section of the book are clearly of a deeply personal nature. And even though those poems are about my mother’s illness and death, there are some surreal moments in them, like in “Umbilical,” where I imagine myself plugging the ghost of my umbilicus into the dirt around a red oak tree we’ve planted in her memory, hoping to feed off some of her ashes sprinkled in the soil there. And I envision the whole setting as an amusement park. As diverse as the surreal and personal may seem to some, I tend to see the surreal elements that maybe slipped by unnoticed in the moment. The purpose and mechanism of the fusion is opaque to me.

Many of the poems also make reference to or are about films. What role does cinema play in the collection?

At one point, film and cinema played an even bigger role in earlier versions of the manuscript that became Something Burned Along the Southern Border. In the editing process, a lot of the movie-based poems were cut out, in large part, so the book wouldn’t become a theme-based collection of poems. I think good fiction and good films have a lot to say to each other. Films have always provided watershed-type moments in my life where, say, I learn something about storytelling—the possibilities, the limits, the emotional impact. Being forced to watch Ricardo Balducci’s Clown in school as a young boy had a huge impact on me. It’s a sadistic film about a boy losing his dog, and even though it was traumatic and scarring, there’s something beautiful and sublime about it that makes me understand why our music teacher made us sit through repeated screenings. So of course, I wrote a poem about it called “Punishment Via 14-Minute French Film.” But there are references to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Nosferatu the Vampyre,  Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and I’ve even picked up on some oblique references to David Lynch films that I didn’t realize were there(Lynch’s Lost Highway being one of those movies that really opened up some space in my head). The poem “Cinema du Parc” is about Montreal’s most amazing movie house, where I spent many blissed out hours when I lived in Montreal. 

As a poet, journalist, and fiction writer, how do you balance your literary education and work with the responsibilities and enticements of everyday life?

I’m always very careful about thinking of myself or referring to myself as a journalist. I’m not a trained journalist, though I’ve worked as a reporter and photographer at a major daily and, for the last four years, as the editor of a weekly paper in LaSalle, Ontario (just southwest of Windsor). For me, working in newspapers has allowed me to earn a living in something that I find relatively tolerable. But like a lot of writers and creative types, I’ve had a rather checkered relationship with employment. For me, writing is the enticement of everyday life. I don’t look at writing as work. It’s more like play. Finding balance being a husband and father is kind of tricky sometimes, though. I’m lucky that my wife, Jennifer, is really happy about all that’s happened since the book came out, though there were times when I was working it that there was uncertainty about what this would all amount to. Kurt Vonnegut said “All male writers… no matter how broke or otherwise objectionable, have pretty wives.” In my case, I would also add the words forgiving, understanding and patient. Jennifer has a good job, so that allows me a certain amount of leeway, where I don’t have to go out and find some major breadwinner kind of job that would make all the creative stuff grind to a halt. Ideally, I would like to be at home writing full-time and taking care of the kids—getting them off to school, making lunches, getting dinner started: what’s commonly called a kept husband. I’ve done a bit of that over the years when the kids were babies, and it’s heaven.    

The creative writer is often regarded as a marginalized figure. Do you agree?

For the most part, I think writers tend to marginalize themselves. We think too much, we watch what other people are doing (which David Foster Wallace described as our general ‘creepiness’), we obsess over things, we isolate…. All things health professionals advise against. Plus, we tend to take unconventional routes to achieve goals. Nothing upsets and frustrates some people more than nonconformity—when they see someone who’s very obviously going against the grain and doesn’t care. I’ve taken a lot of flak from family and friends over the years about my relaxed attitude towards my job, my lack of concern about upward mobility and having nothing that resembles a financial portfolio or a retirement plan. The people I know who have those things, and, God forbid, talk about them in casual conversation, don’t seem very happy or interesting to me. They seem worried. If you’re going to worry about something, at least make it entertaining or completely irrational. Worry about a nuclear strike, or male menopause, or tornados, or various rare and improbable afflictions.

Keats wrote, “I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” How do you define literary ambition? What are your ambitions as a writer?   

I don’t know a lot about Keats except that he died when he was 25 and he packed all his works into the last five years of his life. I understand how he felt when he said that, though. I don’t think he’s talking about ‘greatness’ as the only goal. I think he’s saying ‘swing for the fences’ every time. The alternative is like stepping to the plate and hoping to get hit by a pitch. No one strives for mediocrity. As in all things, we should have perfection in mind, but understand, and maybe even revel in the fact that, ultimately, it’s unattainable. My ambition as a writer is to be happy writing and to produce more publishable work. I really try to stay in the moment, otherwise I’m lost. Right now, I know that I have another manuscript of poetry well under way. I have several hundred pages of a novel that I need time to complete. I have about a dozen short stories in various stages of incompletion, and notebooks full of ideas. I guess the ambition plays itself out in 24-hour increments.