A Conversation with Roger Bell and his Writing
Interviewer: Amanda Gallagher, BA (Hons) at Laurentian University
As with many days in a Canadian winter, the weather almost postponed the meeting that Roger Bell and I had set up. It was freezing rain that drifted on and off through our conservation, but we endured. Roger suggested a small Bohemian-styled coffee house that ended up as a perfect backdrop for a chat about the good parts of nostalgia, the freedom in writing, and looking deep to connect with the intimacy of human nature in his works.
(Interviewer): I get the feeling that you focus on nostalgia throughout your works; is focusing on the past or your experiences of an area where you draw your inspirations from?
(Roger Bell): I like nostalgia, but in the good sense, like the good memories to be passed on. The last section of When the Devil Calls is about my parents. Well, my parents died 5 months apart, and I’m not sure when after they died exactly I started writing those poems but they took me over a year to distance myself… when there’s something that close you get soppy about it. You need to distance yourself from something like that. So, it took me a while to write them, though I really wanted to write something about them, about their lives, about their deaths. It’s pretty traumatic too. I was talking to a woman this morning whose father died this year and she was saying it’s been a rough year and I said, “yea, it takes the wind out of your sails for a while.” So it took me a long time to write those; some of them are softer in there [When the Devil Calls], “Invitation” for example. I don’t know why I thought of that, my mother being in the hospital. She wasn’t conscious, and when you’re just sitting there at 2 o’clock in the morning, you think “Well, I’ll read to her.” It doesn’t matter what I read.
These were intended to show a variety of things about their passing, about what they had done for me and what I thought of them. “Open Letter to my Father:” every time I drive by an apple stand around Meaford, or see apples, I think of him. One of the last times I actually took them both out, my mother was ill, and my father was going blind so I popped them both in the car and drove them around rural Bruce County for a while. And we stopped in at an apple place and got some fresh cider and apple butter, and it was a great day for them. That was in October, and my father died of a heart attack on Christmas day and my mother was dead by next May, so that was the last time was together with them in really happy circumstances.
So nostalgia fuels a lot of what I’ve done.
(I): To remember the good things that happened.
(RB): Yea. [Candy Cigarettes] came out about three years ago. And it’s not poetry, its prose. So, it’s about my life between when I can first remember and age 18.
(I): I realised there’s a lot in the “Man in the Middle” section of When the Devil Calls of teenage/ younger years. They’re easy for me as a younger person to relate to as well. Like “Paramedic Angel,” what about that one?
(RB): That was a bizarre one. [laughs]
(I): Are there a lot of fictionalization aspects in your works?
(RB): Every bit of writing is fictionalized to some extent. You take in something, even if it’s something very personal and you filter it a bit, think about it a bit, and pump it back out the other side. I think everything would be fictional because it’s filtered. You’re a writer, you change things, you add things. If someone says, “Oh, it happened exactly like that,” I think maybe it hasn’t. Like something I say in Candy Cigarettes, in the foreword: “I’ve used a factional background for most of my tales that actual people have lent through the imagined. I, myself, cannot quite tell where one ends and the other begins.” That’s from an American writer, Marjore Kinnan Rawlings.
Like “Pluto,” when they said Pluto’s not actually a planet. You grow up with something like that, and it was drilled into you every day. So I wonder what the teacher who taught me that thinks. I can remember it being up on the board and I wonder what she would think when you believed everything like that was true. You were told that was true. And there are some things right now that you grow up with and you believe that’s the way it is, and maybe twenty years down the road they’ll change it, we thought it was true but it’s not anymore.
(I): There are a lot of dedications in When the Devil Calls, is from thinking of the person while writing or for a personalized idea?
(RB): I like to write poems for people. In You Tell Me, it’s all stories that people told me. Every one of them. Well, a couple are my own, but most are others. I like taking things from people, changing them around and working with them for a bit, and giving them back to them. That’s what I did with You Tell Me. I took their stories, made them sort of my own, then gave them back. And yet, in every case they really liked what I had done with the story, they were happy with it. So I like to dedicate poems.
(I): It makes that one page more personalized in a way.
(RB): Yea, to me it personalizes, maybe lets the reader see that this is for somebody.
(I): I found in You Tell Me, the narrative style draws people in and makes it more intimate, that you’re thinking of it from that person’s perspective more than your own.
(RB): Yea, that’s quite true. When someone tells you a story, you really have to get inside what they may have been feeling to retell it. The poem in there about children dying [“Eclipse”], (the little boy who drowned and my nephew who died really young, and this woman’s baby brother) you really have to try to get inside somebody’s head when that happens. I guess the closest I’ve come is when my nephew died, but it wasn’t my child, or a brother or a sister; I’ve never lost my brothers. Losing a child is hard, I don’t know what it’d be like. But getting inside someone’s head is an interesting comment, and a fair comment. It is very intimate.
(I): It’s like you’re not just telling a story, but you’re telling about their emotions and personal thoughts as well.
(RB): Some of that I fictionalized too, like they didn’t tell me everything there but I imagined. I think that’s what a big part of writing is, is how would someone feel in this situation. You’re not writing autobiography all the time, you can’t do that. So if I were in this situation, how would I feel? What would I do?
(I): It also makes it easier to relate to for the audience. You as the writer need to think about the situation, and then us as the readers also need to experience it.
(RB): It does echo that way.
(I): There’s also a bit of more ‘taboo’ areas, like some don’t like to talk about their sexualized lives. I like the natural way you’ve tackled it.
(RB): Well, sex is natural. There are writers who steer completely clear of sex, and there are others who focus on it all the time, though it’s just a part of life. There’s a sexual nature in “Paramedic Angel,” in “Slaves,” in “Hi, how are you? Fine thanks, and you?”
(I): They’re within the others sections too, as a part of it, so it describes a part of life.
(RB): Yea! It’s such a natural part of life that you’d be unwise to avoid it. And yet, I think if it gets overdone, it gets trivialized. I’ve never stayed clear of anything like that; if it embarrasses people, well that’s too bad [laughs].
I never worry about that, I should worry more about readers or audience, but I don’t. You have to write for yourself, ultimately. You want audiences to like it and read it and listen to it, and really enjoy it, but you have to satisfy yourself first. If somebody said to me, I liked your first book of poetry, then I didn’t like your second one because you’re doing something else, I’d say that’s fine. Good for you.
I think it’s important to write for yourself, to satisfy something deep within yourself and you see this with a lot of aspiring writers. They write, but they write only for themselves, and they’re not keeping the audience in mind at all. So they may write something that means nothing, like you said you can identify with some of these poems, and that would tell me I’ve succeeded that you like it, wanted to talk to me about them, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. To reach out and touch somebody, and even in Candy Cigarettes, it’s about a boy growing up in a small town but I’ve had many women say to me, “well I really like it because it reminds me of growing up in the same time, even though you’re a boy, and it’s a different town…” there’s still something common about it. It touched that common chord. And that’s what you’re trying for as a writer.
(I): What were your inspirations or ideas about poetry’s forms? Yours seems very free, no definite form.
(RB): You can stick to a form, but you write fewer form poems. I don’t see the point, it really limits you; in fact, it’s probably harder to write good form-related poetry if you have to structure something. I’ve written what I think are good sonnets, but it’s very hard. I tend to be a very natural writer and storyteller. In You Tell Me, I let loose more with that, like in some of the very long, prose-like poems. In poetry, I listen for – or what I look for when I’m writing – is not so much structure but sounds, rhythm, metaphor, things like that. A line will just end anywhere.
A lot of really, really bad writing is done in the name of rhyming and rhythm. I’ve tried really hard not to use it. People say you’re not disciplined enough when you do that, but I don’t think so. There’s only a short time in history when a lot of poetry rhymed anyway. And people look at that and seem to think that’s the only way to do poetry. I think you need to be fairly free in your writing; you can always tighten it up later anyway. You can get sloppy with it when you’re writing, and then that’s what editing is all about. Rewriting is really what it’s all about.
Some of these, [in You Tell Me], like “Tonight she’s going dancing,” has a very definite line form to it, whereas “Everywhere” is basically prose-poetry. In that one, I completely abandoned line-ends because the woman is seeing her dead husband and it’s just as she’s going about through the day. It’s nothing poetic or rhythmic about it, it’s just a day in her life. It gets really loose when you start writing prose-poetry. The next thing I wrote after that was pure prose [Candy Cigarettes]. People tell me it still has a lot of poetry in it. It’s still in the lines.
(I): If you start as a poet, or you write more poetry, it’s very reflective in your prose as well.
(RB): I think so, yea. You’ll see a lot of writers who, right now in Canada, started as poets, and you’ll still see it in their writing. You can look at someone else’s prose and see they’re not really a poet. Like Margaret Atwood, for example, she’s basically a prose writer now with a little bit of poetry here and there, but there’s still poetry in what she writes.