Read Tom's full Writers' Rooms interview here...
Where are you?
In my study – my writing space, that is. It accounts for half of the top floor of our old house in bohemian East Vancouver (Vancouver’s version of the West Village). The other half of the top floor is studio space for Lydia, the love of my life, who is now pursuing her lifelong dream of studying art and art history. We have bookcases scattered liberally throughout our house, but my study is where the poetry books live – shelves upon shelves of them – together with numerous reference volumes and a shocking number of dictionaries.
What are you working on?
I am making the final edits to two manuscripts – one a second book of poems, entitled Idiolect, and the other a second book of short fiction, entitled The Four-Faced Liar. I have promised both to my publisher by the end of the summer and I am cautiously optimistic that they will appear early in 2021, COVID-19 disruptions permitting.
What’s that over there?
That’s a brilliant pencil drawing of Seamus Heaney rendered by my talented sister, Barbara Bell. She gave it to me as a retirement gift in 2019. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Seamus continues to be an enormous influence in my writing life and his mark is everywhere to be seen in our house. If you look closely at the picture of my study, you may also be able to pick out a small photo of me standing with Barney Devlin outside his blacksmith’s shop in Hillhead. (Yes, that’s the Barney Devlin immortalised in Seamus’s poems, “The Forge” and “Midnight Anvil”). Lydia and I had a grand visit with Barney in 2015; alas, we and the wider world lost him the following February.
What’s that sound?
It’s Bill Evans, or maybe E.S.T., or maybe the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (my current musical obsession) playing softly through my laptop’s satellite speakers. I do tend to keep things quiet in my study when I’m writing but piano-based jazz can often be heard in the background when I’m reading.
How does isolation help or hinder you?
The isolation made necessary by the pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse. (I pause to say parenthetically that, of course, my complaints are mere trifles compared to those suffered by people who have fallen ill, who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or who have lately been cut off from visiting aging relatives in long-term care facilities. I have been spared all of these things, thank God.) It is true that the isolation has brought with it more time for writing. For that I am grateful. But it has also brought a distracting and pervasive sense of malaise and uncertainty together with a lamentable diminution in face-to-face contact with friends and family.
Overall, my creative output has improved a little, but not as much as I expected.
Time for a break…?
Lydia and I try to get out for a brisk walk, usually of about an hour’s duration, once each day. That typically takes us around nearby Trout Lake (an urban lake, ten minutes away, imagine!) and then up the very funky Commercial Drive to Prado where the cappuccino has attained the stature of an art form and is crafted better than anywhere else in the city. Lately the weather has been sunny and so that enhances the experience, but we enjoy this little ritual even when it’s raining.
What are you [reading/listening to/watching] these days?
I’m deep into Anna Burns’s Milkman at the moment. I started the novel over a year ago and work demands (judgment-writing, mostly) nudged it out of the way. I’m so happy to be fully re-immersed in the book now. What a quirky tour de force. (Little wonder it won the Man Booker.) Next in line are poet Karen Solie’s recently published The Caiplie Caves and Jude Nutter’s new book of poems, Dead Reckoning (soon to be released by Salmon). I eagerly await every new release by Karen Solie; hers is one of Canada’s strongest poetic voices. I first fell under the spell of Jude Nutter’s poetry when her poem “Disco Jesus and the Wavering Virgins in Berlin, 2011” was shortlisted for The Moth’s Ballymaloe Poetry Prize in 2015. (She went on to win the Ballymaloe in 2019.)
I feel blessed indeed to have the more spacious reading time that retirement has brought with it (although I greatly miss my time on the bench and the daily contact I had with the public and my colleagues in the law).
As to what I’m listening to, beyond the piano jazz already mentioned, I’ve been returning to my recordings of Hugh Fraser, a dear friend who, sadly, died of cancer earlier this summer. Hugh was a brilliant trombonist and pianist and a great loss to us and to the jazz scene, both in Canada and internationally. Going back over his canon has been part of the process of coming to terms with his death, I think. Then there is the pre-Workingman’s Dead repertoire of the Grateful Dead to which I find myself returning, time and again. When the Grateful Dead switched to country-inflected music, they left me entirely behind but during my high school years in the late 1960s I couldn’t get enough of albums like Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa and Live Dead. That heady material – especially “Dark Star” on Live Dead – is exquisitely complex, melodically intricate and, well, just timeless.
The last film we saw was Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and it was memorable for many reasons. It is an art film, to be sure, but one with a sophisticated plot, well-developed characters and utterly gorgeous cinematography.
What [book/poem/film/album] might you revisit in times of crisis or uncertainty?
I try to re-read Ulysses every ten years or so. (I’m sorry if that sounds pretentious.) The becalming of life in the Horse Latitudes of COVID-19 seemed to create the perfect conditions for my fourth pass through that extraordinary novel. And so, I leapt on the opportunity. What an incredibly thrilling, and enduringly perplexing, piece of writing. So much depth, intellectual vigour and percussive musicality. Such clever wit. Joyce’s tenderness is so affecting, yet his ability to conjure human pettiness and worse is equally so. (How can he have expected us to remain sympathetic to Bloom when he showed us how, until then enraptured, Bloom reacted so cruelly upon discovering Gerty McDowell’s mild physical disability? Yet, somehow we do.) Ulysses reveals more on every successive reading; but then, as readers, we are different amalgams of life experience on each occasion that we return to the novel and so this ought not to surprise us. Ulysses provided the perfect refuge from the coronavirus malaise for me this year.
The other work to which I return at such times, particularly where I find myself despairing over dry spells in my own writing, is Seamus Heaney’s Station Island. The admonition, given by the Joyce figure in Sequence XII, should be required reading for all intending poets – especially the part where he says:
…Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.
Best advice for writers?
I feel hardly qualified to be advising other writers but, since you asked, here goes. Read. Then read some more. Then settle down with your next poem, or story, or whatever, and get on with it.
Oh. One more thing. For God’s sake, apply to attend the Seamus Heaney Centre summer poetry school at Queen’s, Belfast. Really. (Nobody prompted me or set me up to say that.) The summer school changed my writing life. It will change yours too.