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Robert Priest Vows Out
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London
January, 2006, 11:11

Robert Priest /photo by Jillian Vanderkooy
f, as Norman Mailer long ago noted, John Lennon was a "genius of the spirit," discipline-jumping versifier Robert Priest is certainly a virtuoso.

For three decades he's ridden the crest of the Canadian poetry scene, first gaining notoriety as a poet with The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, Zend), as a children's performer with The Boinks and as a musician with The Great Big Face Band.

A jack of all trades and master of several, Priest is a court jester, a flirt, a dancin' fool, an intellectual, a peacenik, a crooner in need of an orchestra. He's much loved and admired in his local literary circle, and doesn't do bad on the road, either. All in all, the sweetest of fellas, the most articulate of raconteurs and the most honest-of-heart artists Canada has ever seen.

Watch out for this guy. He'll eventually triumph in ways he as yet hasnít. And he was kind enough to take time off from his busy work and family life (marveling at his political science-studyin' son Eli), get high, talk to IN and, with any luck, hire a new band. The following is his advice to those who would follow his horn's brassy blast.

IN: It's been almost 18 months since your last book How To Swallow A Pig. What have you been writing, doing, not doing, since then?

Robert Priest: Iíve been mostly working on my sword and sorcery epic, The Paper Sword. Iíve been doing it for over four years and Iím very close to finishing it. But I always meet once a week with my song-writing partner Allen Booth, and we write a new song and play and sing. Iíve also written a bunch of new poems and numerous articles for NOW Magazine, Canada's premiere alternative newsweekly based in Toronto, as I am.

Plus I taught a song lyric writing class at University of Toronto School of Continuing Education. In between times Iím plugging away on this adolescent screenplay -- in the American Pie genre (I didnít ask for it -- the idea just came to me and I couldnít turn it away, soÖ ). I've also written some songs with David Bradstreet, did two news commentary-type songs on the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC)ís Sunday night news (that was fun) and gigs at folk-festivals, bars and libraries all across this fair land and Australia. Iím into the dharma of it. I do my work.

IN: Of all the genres you work in, which is most difficult?

RP: Writing novels. Itís difficult because thereís so much work and so much re-writing.

IN: Which type of work is more rewarding personally and which financially?

RP: Financially one song made more than everything else Iíve done -- added up, Iíd think. Personally itís all rewarding when itís going right. I have no preference so long as I tap into the source. In terms of ergs per inch, though, I think a song is the most ergonomic of the constructs. It is amazing to think you can construct this little lyrical machine and people will get it stuck in their heads, even unwillingly, for hundreds of years after your death.

Thatís as close to magic as art gets.

IN: What would you tell new writers about your process(es) that might help them to establish their own routine?

RP: First: establish your own routine. Seriously, follow the nuances of your character into your own pattern. Remember Newtonís law of inertia: ďAn object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.Ē So, once you do get it rolling -- keep it rolling. Inertia is with you. I have various projects in various disciplines, if Iím blocked on one front I take a break by doing some work on another.

And thereís always a bit of guilty pleasure to the shift. In some ways Iím being "bad" because Iím usually going to something that calls to me -- something thatís fun in some way, so I get to proceed with that air of slight contraband. Have no shame. Be crazy ambitious. Brag so much you have to be good or youíll die of embarrassment. Put all your chips on all the numbers. Need money. Needing money will make you seek work.

Work in the field. Working in the field colludes with the inertia. If you do ever stop then you have to "overcome inertia." This may take extreme measures -- coffee, booze, herb Ė- and whatever pushes you up over the hump, go for. You have to ride the lateral like it was downhill. Learn how to "row uphill toward God," as American poet Anne Sexton liked to say. Aggress against language.

Robert Priest and Daryl Jung /photo by Jillian Vanderkooy
The big thrill in writing is when it gets magical. At that point, if you can, you just slide with it, you go where it goes, and afterwards, especially when itís just started you are hesitant to change a word because itís holy. But I want to talk about the "slow magic" of work and deliberation. You can give yourself an instruction.

For instance, one that has been running along at the back of my mind for years is, "How is it backwards?" Silently at the back of my mind, thereís a little mental gizmo that does a little operation on all input, backwardsing it. This is good for satire. Good for aphorisms, good for inventing new kinds of phrasings or getting a perspective on the "frontwards," if you will.

But there are all sorts of other little instructions like that that you can get running. Flipping this, spinning that, doing a whole jamboree of morphologies on language, syntax, story, etc., so you have a shot at popping up some interesting combinations -- palette material. Train your mind to play with the material at hand.

IN: Where do you write?

RP: Mostly in my room upstairs or if Iím on the road, somewhere where I wonít be disturbed. Late at night when I can hardly stay awake I write aphorisms in little blank books, otherwise itís pell mell on the laptop, carpeling my tunnel.

IN: What advice do you have for first time writers trying to get published, or acquire agents and/or publishers?

RP: Become inured to rejection. Have a good solid postage/copying budget. Develop a strong sense of your own worthiness whether or not you actually do ever write a decent word. Donít stand on any buckets with ropes round yer neck. Donít expect them to see through the coffee-stains -- send clean respectful copy, do something subtle to single your package out, as in: write well. But also if thereís some imaginative "extraí" you can slap on the package -- be bold. Oh yes, be bold.

IN: Is it advantageous for a writer to be part of a union or guild, such as The Writers' Union of Canada?

RP: I would say yes. Iím in the League Of Canadian Poets and the Writerís Union. They administer a readings fund that has allowed me to travel widely and reach large numbers of poetry-people live. They help bring about such things as the Public Lending Right, and supply resources. Iíve had excellent contract advice from the staff at the writerís union. If youíre a networking type of person you can network at their big galas.

IN: How important it is for writers to have an Internet presence with their own small web site, such as yours at to contain and present their portfolio?

RP: It is 8 important. Possibly even 9. Depending on whether this is out of 11 or not. Itís important for poets and songwriters to hook onto the mainstream immediately. Tolerate no middleman between the work and the potential audience.

IN: Favourite authors?

RP: Julio Cortazar, Irving Layton (see Useful News this issue), Louis de Berniere, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Barbara Gowdy, Jonathan Swift, Rimbaud, Milorad Pavic, Rumi (Coleman Barks Translations), C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbitt, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Ovid, Salman Rushdie, Thich Nhat Than, George Orwell, Lewis Carroll,etc.

IN: Favourite comedian?

RP: George Carlin, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor.

IN: The Beatles or Stones?

RP: Lennon over either. Bob Marley too. But I love the Stones for Gimme Shelter, the Beatles A Day In The Life and Donít Let Me Down and Iím Only Sleeping. The Stones for Satisfaction, Paint It Black and Ventilator. Marley for everything.

IN: Why did you start writing, and why have you kept doing it?

Robert Priest /photo by Jillian Vanderkooy
RP: In a word, "lucubration." I got a little pen flashlight for Christmas as a kid. I went under the covers, made a tent in the dark, and let loose with some ink. I was eight. I wrote a poem called I Can Write Poetry All Through The Night. I am one of those people who always knew that they would write.

I kept going because I love it, because it calls to me, and because I live in a rich country and I could take the time and still not starve. I kept going because I had health care through the government, because I could live on the dole, because my wives supported me. Because I couldnít stop. Because I love the magic and the pen is the way I dip into it.

As I explain in the introduction (or why I wrote it) of my 1988 book, The Mad Hand:

"Being a poet I must do my rounds, checking up on language, finding out the dead words, re-exploding the holy dynamites, keeping the reverberations and musics fresh. As a Priest it is also my job to let the light in, to be a reflector, to open up curtains. Sometimes a word is too rigid -- like an icon Ė it blocks the light of its own origin, it doesn't shine through. So I have to soften it up a bit, throw it into the corner and find out where its weak spots are, batter it until it falls away like an empty mask. I picture myself as a kind of scientist mixing around the mental elements, distilling them and exploding them, looking for answers in the inkblots, hoping to reveal the roots of certain patterns, strings of words, prayers, curses hoping to take the masks off things. Everything though is totally by chance -- I'm mixing chemicals like a blind man with paint, never knowing which colour I will set off next. Also I am trying to break out of my own silence. The violence here is never towards you -- it is only towards the language and the ideas.

"Finally I wrote this book because this life is the only one we have and I wanted to answer to the charge that poets always criticize. I wanted to plaster the propagandas together into mad tirades of affection, re-activate old hopes, suggest buildings, methods, means to profit by love and love-making, genuine and holy. At the same time I am also an antenna and a barometer -- a singing barometer, a kind of tenor radar sending out these bleeps with love... with love... hoping for the best

IN: The future?

RP: I predict unpredictability. Iím sure that the uncertainty will continue. I would trade your cows in for magic beans. A more nuanced definition of "darkness." We will surely all die before too long. My books will be read by people who arenít born yet. My lullabies will be sung. I see a statue of myself at Bain Avenue.

Read IN's selected works of Robert Priest.

Curriculum Vitae

  • 1979  The Visible Man (poems) Unfinished Monument Press
  • 1980  Sadness Of Spacemen (poems and prose) Dreadnaught Press
  • 1982  The Robert Priest E.P. (songs) Airwave Records
  • 1984  The Man Who Broke Out Of The Letter X
    (poems and prose) Coach House Press
  • Summerlong (childrenís music) G-Tel Records
  • 1985  The Short Hockey Career Of Amazing Jany
    (childrenís story) Aya Press
  • 1986  Congo Toronto (song-poem) Robot Records
  • 1987  Broken Star (song poem) Major Label Records
             The Ruby Hat (poems for children) Aya Press
  • 1988  The Mad Hand (poems and prose) Coach House Press
  • Milton Acorn Memorial Peopleís Poetry Award
  • 1989 Playsongs And Lullabies (childrenís music; The Teds) Waterlily Music
  • 1990 Rottweiller Pacifist (audio tape) Coach House Press
  • 1991 The Coming (operetta) Caravan Theatre Company
  • 1992 Winterlong (songs and poems for children; The Teds) Waterlily Music
             Scream Blue Living
    (new and selected poems) Mercury Press
  • 1993 Knights Of The Endless Day (novel) Viking
            Daysongs Nightsongs (poems) Groundwood
  • 1994 A Terrible Case Of The Stars (poems for young readers) Penguin
              The Ballad Of The Blue Bonnet (Groundwood)
  • 1997 Resurrection In The Cartoon (poems) ECW Press
              Tongue ĎNí Groove (ĎSpoken Word CDí) Artisan Music     
              The Time Release Poems (collected aphorisms) (Ekstasis)
              Minibugs And Microchips (A play for children) (YPT)
  • 1998 Chalmer's Award for Theatre for young audiences for Minibugs & Microchips
  • 2000 Poem Painter (animated concrete poetry application for Internet)
  • 2001 Abductees Anonymous (with Allen Booth; a poetic play)
            The Secret Invasion Of Bananas 
    (collected childrenís poems) Cherubim Press
  • 2002 Blue Pyramids (selected verse poems)
  • 2004 How To Swallow A Pig (selected prose poems)
  • 2006 Songs with Allen Booth. IN Icon

Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. Email Diego X:

Mark London is a Toronto freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. Email Mark:

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