Today I'm talking with Lesley Choyce about poetry. Specifically, about his book "In Praise of Small Mistakes." Choyce is a novelist and poet, surf poet to be exact. He has written more than 100 books and runs Pottersfield Press from Lawrencetown Beach, Nova Scotia.
Transcript of the interview:
ARCHIBALD.STUDIO: Is poetry fiction or nonfiction?
LESLEY CHOYCE: It’s probably somewhere in between. For my poetry that I write, it tends for the most part to be a little bit autobiographical, a little bit focussed on everyday kinds of things to try and find the magic in everyday things. And sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t but I suppose it’s more real life than fiction. I know when I’m sitting down to write fiction, it has something to do with me but it’s not really me. When I’m writing poetry, it’s usually coming from experience.
ARCHIBALD: What do you consider a mistake?
LESLEY CHOYCE: Pretty much everything that we do in life that we learn anything from, I think is a mistake and a good one. I think the Buddhists call them some kind of gifts or something like that. Gifts from Buddha, gifts from the universe, whatever it happens to be. As far as I can tell, I’ve never learned all that much in life from things that I do well or successfully, not that it’s a huge list, but what I learn things from are my failures, small or large and I just tried to embrace them. So, that’s where the title of the book comes from. It’s like, ack, I’ve failed, I made a mistake, wow, what a great opportunity to learn from.
ARCHIBALD.STUDIO: “My Picture in the wall street journal” by the last stanza in the poem, you reach out your hand to the business man [and] another poem, where you are talking about yourself on a train, “The piccadilly line” and you’re on your way into … life is going to whack you on the head, I think you commented?
LESLEY CHOYCE: There are a lot of travel poems so I think that the “Piccadilly line goes back to the first time that I visited London, flew into Heathrow, I was 19 years old maybe, and got on the Picadilly Line, heading downtown to Trafalgar Square and Lester Square or someplace, one of those squares. We’re all in transit, that’s what life’s about, that’s the journey, the cliche. And we connect with people on our travels and so the Picadilly Line, I’m connecting with all these strangers, many of whom look very, very different to me. The first mohawk haircut I ever saw, people wearing really weird shoes. And then, I think the other thing about the Wall Street Journal was just one of these really fluky stories, a reporter from the WSJ came to Nova Scotia and said “let’s write write about Nova Scotia surfers, because every once in a while people on Wall Street need to hear about what’s going on out there in real life in strange and out of the way places like Nova Scotia and so I ended up on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. It seemed very, very odd, it certainly freaked out my mother down in New Jersey. And then, I thought, well, if somebody’s sitting on the train going from probably suburban Connecticut into New York City on their daily commute and they’re reading this wacky story about winter surfing in rural Nova Scotia … It’s just a wonderful connection with a stranger. That’s the beauty of writing of course, you never know when a few words together will make sense to someone else.
ARCHIBALD.STUDIO: In that line, is being a novelist, a poet, a surf poet, would you consider it a vocation or a career?
LESLEY CHOYCE: It’s a lifestyle, I think is what it is. Thank you for singling out my book of poetry. None of us really make much, if any money from poetry of course and maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be, I can never complain about that because we’re a small little chunk of the population we’ve got these interesting little personal things to say, in a short amount of time, a compressed version of a poem. And that’s something I would like to continue to do – write a few things that are maybe not commercial but certainly not poetry. Even in the world of poetry, I think I’m pretty out of step with the world of sophisticated poetry. My stuff is pretty down to earth. I think there needs to be a few of us voices out there just hanging onto poetry and saying this is what it’s about, these epiphanic moments this is what it’s about. About those — moments but they can’t be so obtuse that people can’t make sense of them, so that’s why I tend to focus on the everyday.
ARCHIBALD.STUDIO: To me these [poems] read like short stories, and they’re very visual. You put an image (boom) in the reader’s head. “Plum pie in a thunderstorm” where you have “the landlord shot a wild boar just outside our door last night” and how the sea is very clever and it’s going to take it all back.
LESLEY CHOYCE: I don’t like to think that we’re all going to go away. But i’ve considered it. After reading certain kinds of books, I think one is called The Uninhabitable Planet. The other idea comes from a conversation I had with Farley Mowatt a long time ago in Cape Breton when I was visiting at his house and where he just kept saying Wow, I can’t wait until all us humans are simply extinct and we give the planet back to who rightfully should own it. In his mind, of course that was all the other animals and living creatures and the fish and seals and everybody else. So, I guess I ponder about that but no I don’t want us all to go away. I’ve got grandchildren and I want to see them grow up and see us continue. But we get humbled all the time by the power of nature.
We get humbled all the time by the power of nature.
And sure, you know, Baden-Baden, Germany, where we were staying in Germany, wherever we were staying. To me it sounded like something out of a Grimms’ fairy tale or something like that. Wow, you saw wild boars over there, wild pigs coming in. The poor creature, he got shot by the landlord where I was staying. But that coupled together with the woman of the house coming to give us this plum pie and in the middle of this amazing thunderstorm and a convergence of several unusual things, that’s part of the beauty of travelling. I'm always looking for these weird and interesting things that happen along the way. And it’s up to the reader to maybe find the larger meaning or maybe the meaning is just the story itself because a lot of the poems are anecdotal.
ARCHIBALD.STUDIO: There’s a randomness, you mention you’re going to different places, and finding different things but the randomness like the potato, you talk about observing a lady carving up fish and then all of a sudden you’re walking to the car and there’s this perfectly peeled potato that you come upon and it’s like there’s this sense of wonder, “how did this perfectly peeled potato come here is that the type of thing that you look for? Or you don’t look for, you just find it or stumble upon it or both?
LESLEY CHOYCE: Well, I do both. I definitely look for the odd and unusual things that happen. And I think there’s still a place for that in poetry. Obviously, that poem, it’s a small little story, what does it mean? It doesn’t mean much of anything but how strange and interesting our memory is. It was a trip to Greece and we were in a small seaport somewhere on the Peloponnese Peninsula and there in the middle of this parking lot in this seaport is this perfectly peeled potato lying there in the middle of this parking lot and it made me smile, it made me laugh and I probably remember that damn potato more than just about anything else that happened for the whole time I was in Greece.
ARCHIBALD.STUDIO: You have some poems that talk about your parents when they passed and how that made them more real to you and the list of friends that died in 2019 and how that was impacting you. And there’s a sense in this book of poetry that you have, there’s a sense of life flashing before your eyes, so there’s these images from when you’re a boy or even when you’re a baby being swaddled and somebody looking down over the children. Right up to now and to where you might be. Do you have a sense of that? Is it a sense of wisdom? And a sense of here are all the vignettes from my life that are with me right now? Is that a fair comment on this book?
LESLEY CHOYCE: I think the deaths that are in there – a few people who were somewhat close to me who had died that year. That’s sort of the nature of the territory. I’m 70-years-old, folks that I’ve known for a while are passing on. And all of us poets, whatever stripe we are and however sophisticated or unsophisticated, like me, we can’t help but mark their passing and consider the fact that we are all mortal of course. Because deep inside each one of us there’s the voice that’s continually saying well, that’s really sad, that one died but you’re not going to die, you’re going to live forever, right? And of course that's a false illusion but some of us hang onto it for a very long time and then we’re shocked and appalled. It can’t be? You mean someone actually dies? And yeah, they do, whether they’re famous or whether they’re your neighbour next door, whoever it happens to be. It catches up with people, we pause and reflect on it. And I guess I’m doing my job like all those other folks down through the centuries. Writing about death as best as we can, trying to make sense of it, although I’m not sure there’s any sense to be made out of it. Just expressing our thoughts and our emotions.
ARCHIBALD: Do you have a favourite poem in your book?
LESLEY CHOYCE: Favourite poem? Hmmmmm. Let me take a really quick look and see if there’s one that jumps out at me. Often, i’lI’ll put at the very end of the book, one that seems to tie things together a little bit. And that’s one called “You are Spring.” I won’t read the whole thing but I’ll read the first couple lines:
You are spring
and I am summer.
I am already there
With the sunlight on the hibiscus flower
While you remain green and wet
Trying to pull life out of winter into
The chill morning rain
Not even sure who the “you” exactly is, I’ve got a few ideas, but I’ve been doing that a lot in poetry, even in the new book that I’m working on, where I’m addressing the reader directly. I think I got that from Billy Collins, an American poet who was a Poet Laurette for a while, a really interesting guy who writes kind of wacky poetry too. Kind of like that offbeat sort of thing that I’m aspiring to. I think that there’s something in a poem where you can speak directly to the reader. Kind of like two quiet people sitting in armchairs somewhere by a fire, and making it as personal as you can. I hope that some of the poems have that personal connection.
ARCHIBALD: You just mentioned a new book. What’s next?
LESLEY CHOYCE: Well, always a couple books on the go. The next one is actually going to be published by Rocky Mountain Books in the fall of 2022. It’s called “Around England With a Dog.” It’s nonfiction, it’s travel, it’s supposed to be funny. It better be funny or there’s not much there. But it’s about my wife and I and our white West Highland Terrier, traveling around England with a dog. And that same kind of travel sequence, some funny and interesting things.
Stay there for just one minute and I’ll introduce you to the dog. So this is the dog. This is Keltie. Say ‘hi’ to Keltie. [Hi Keltie] Here he is. So that's the book coming out in the fall.
And I have some more young adult novels, some serious adult literature perhaps and that book of poetry that does not have a name but it continues in the same vein that I guess I’ve been doing. Ruminations about life, and death, and our travels in the short little clip of time that we get. And trying to come up with some interesting answers, at least observations about the world that we live in.