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Strong Beginnings

First, the coffee: Strong Beginnings with Matthew Tierney

Whether you are starting a short story, an essay or a poem, coffee seems like a pretty great companion when staring at a blank white page (or screen). 

In light of our collaboration with Luminato, Toronto's festival of the mind, we are reaching out to Canadian writers to find out how they begin their work.

Our second author is Matthew Tierney! He is here to talk about the opening to his collection of poems Probably Inevitable. Click here to read the first poem, "Author's Note to Self"! 

What comes first in a poem - the words or the subject?
Neither. First, the coffee. Then mild panic. Finally, the words. (The subject rarely comes up.)

When preparing a collection, how do you decide which poem to open with?
Sequencing is tough. There are a dozen right ways to do it, and yet you’re convinced there’s just one, if only you could find it. The best advice I had about this came from Kevin Connolly, who said the first poem should be like a handshake. Or was that milkshake? Either way, Connolly’s gold.

Probably Inevitable is a collection of science-related poems. What made you decide to open with "Author’s Note to Self"?
This poem takes its cue from a book by Iain McGilchrist on the hemispheric divide in the brain. In short, the left hemisphere is a bully who ignores the right. The right just wants to share. Seemed to strike an appropriate tone for the collection. Plus, with a title like that, it had to go where author’s notes typically go—at the front of the book.

How many drafts do you think this poem went through?

Are strong beginnings necessary in poetry? 
If the beginning is noticeably stronger than the middle or the end, then you need to work on the middle or end. Poetry is not as laid back as fiction. No slacking off allowed.

How about as a reader? 
Even if a poem doesn’t catch my attention right away I won’t put it down. But when I finish it, I’ll be merciless in my judgment.

Do you have a favourite opening line to a poem? 
The eighteen-year-old in me is still surprised by Philip Larkin’s first line to This Be the Verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” If I thought of poetry at all back then, I thought of “Thou still unravished bride of quietness…” That poetry could be both has turned out pretty great for me. 

Matthew Tierney will be taking part in Luminato's Literary Picnic on Saturday, June 22 in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Photo credit: Charmaine Tierney

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