Five Questions with Daniel Karasik:
Daniel Karasik (b. 1986) is a Toronto-based playwright, poet, fiction writer, and artistic director of indie theatre company Tango Co. His plays have received professional productions across Canada, in the US, and regularly in translation in Germany. He is the author of three books: The Crossing Guard & In Full Light, a volume of plays (Playwrights Canada Press), The Remarkable Flight of Marnie McPhee, a play for children (Playwrights Canada Press), and Hungry, a poetry collection (Cormorant Books). His recent honours include the CBC Literary Award for Fiction, The Malahat Review‘s Jack Hodgins Founders’ Award for Fiction, the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Award, and the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award. His fiction and poetry have appeared in prominent magazines - including The North American Review, Magma, The Fiddlehead, and Air Canada's inflight magazine, EnRoute - in four countries.
Five Questions with Daniel Karasik:
1. The harmattan is such a notable, and unique, feature of West African life. Can you think of any equivalents in Canadian life? In Canadian literature?
Scatological remarks aside? Political blowhards aside? I suppose the northern lights have a kind of mythic status. As does the north, the idea of North. At least that's what my Canadian Literature classes at university told me. But unlike the harmattan, those are phenomena that most Canadians don't encounter very often. They probably have a greater presence in our literature than in the daily consciousness of most people who live in Canada.
2. The last time we interview you, you spoke a bit about your interest in playwriting and the ways in which it overlaps with the writing of poems. You are also a writer of short fiction. Could you speak of the relationship between your writing of poetry and short prose? Which came first for you? Did one fuel or inspire the other? Do you approach the writing of each differently, and if so, how?
Prose came first, though poetry wasn't far behind. I try to be equally conscious and specific and attuned to music and feeling when I write in either form, but otherwise I don't know how to compare them meaningfully. Maybe part of my trouble is that I think it's actually a false opposition, since two prose pieces (say) can be informed by as different motives as a prose piece and a verse piece. Maybe I just don't find the comparison very interesting. OR, maybe I find it so interesting that I'm overwhelmed and sense that I'd need thousands of words to adequately unpack it. One of my favourite writers, Lydia Davis, writes wonderful prose-verse hybrids. She's considered to be a short story writer (and translator from the French), but several of her short pieces have been anthologized in The Best American Poetry volumes. The best of them have an urgency, a precision, an elegance, a supple music, a wisdom, and a deep, unsentimental compassion. Those virtues are what I want, as a reader and a writer. They're what I aim for. At the moment I'm not preoccupied with what form they arrive in, though of course I try to attend to the technical demands of the form they arrive in.
3. You won the 2012 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Short Story prize for your story "Mine", which is quite short. Do you come to very short fiction with a different attitude than you do longer fiction? Is there a shortness at which you think of a short story more as a poem (a prose poem?) and less as a story?
I come to short and long fiction with an identical attitude, because almost all of my fiction - and most of my drama, and some of my verse - starts long and contracts. It's rare that I write a story or novel/novella that doesn't shed at least a third of its original length, and often closer to two-thirds, by the time I consider it "finished" or it's published. Sometimes I suspect I'll never publish a novel of even average length, since everything I write shrinks in the wash so much. To judge by current habits, I'd need to write a first draft the length of Anna Karenina to end up with a novel of maybe 350-400 pages. True to form, the first draft of "Mine," which you mention, was more than three times as long as the version that won the CBC fiction prize. I never feel that brevity of prose turns a story into a poem, though I do sometimes find that radical cuts can give a prose fiction a kind of poetic compression - the language streamlined and intensified, images more crystalline, character actions starker, motives less editorialized.
4. In a recent interview I conducted with you about your first book of poems, Hungry, you mentioned that "music precedes theme when I conceive a poem". I find this idea is true for most of us as children - we love the sound of words, and we love to play with them - but by the time we get old enough to be writing "adult" poetry, many of us have left "sound" behind as the source of our writing. We write first from/for the head, and from/for the ear second or third or not at all. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your journey to that statement of yours - has music always preceded theme for you? And how do you keep it that way, especially when you feel you have a "theme" you really want to talk about?
Music hasn't always preceded theme for me. Sometimes I've been discursive to a fault. I find this balance hard to manage. What I crave is a music that's fused with and carries meaning. Detached from meaning, or without much meaning to bear, music can still give pleasure, and who am I to thumb my nose at pleasure? But it's rare that I get a memorable pleasure from poetry that's just music and wit. Music may precede theme when I write a poem, but it doesn't precede urgency, need, feeling, a vague but insistent sensation that something has to be said. I don't think that's writing "from the head." I think it's writing from the whole person. I want to encounter whole persons in literature, not just body parts (head, ear, heart, etc).
5. What's next for you in your writing life? Any new projects on the horizon?
I'm polishing a novel and a short story collection. Working on a handful of new plays. Trying to surround myself with as many remarkable people as possible, in both my work and my not-work.