Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Benjamin Hertwig sees parallels between pottery and poetry

The author of Slow War, which is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, answers eight questions from eight fellow writers
Benjamin Hertwig is the author of the poetry collection Slow War. (Céline Chuang)

Benjamin Hertwig is an author, ceramicist and former member of the Canadian Armed Forces. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Maisonneuve and the Walrus. Earlier this year, he won a National Magazine Award for his creative nonfiction piece The Burn

His debut poetry collection, Slow War, is a body of poems that explore warfare, its aftermath and what happens when the personal becomes political. The book is a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

Below, Hertwig takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight random questions from eight fellow authors.   

1. Gary Barwin asks, "How or where does a piece of writing begin for you?"

In bed, in my pajamas, likely right before falling asleep, teeth unbrushed, maybe the crumbs of a late night snack still settling in my beard. The genesis is often in a phrase or image that I keep returning to, sometimes with a fair amount of discomfort. It generally takes a few months before I feel able to approach the idea or image on paper — whether that's fiction, nonfiction or poetry. I started writing because of anxiety and depression, so the impulse has often been cathartic, though that's slowly starting to change. 

2. Shani Mootoo asks, "Do you find that you are influenced in any aspect of your writing by other art forms? If so, which and how? If not, why not?"

My mum has been a potter for as long as I've been alive. Growing up, pottery interested me insofar as my mum would bring home donairs on days when she had pottery sales. Over the past three or four years, my writing and pottery careers have grown up alongside one another. The tactile, dirty practice of potting complements the internal, digital practice of writing quite well.

There is an art form in Japanese pottery known as kintsugi, where broken pots are mended with gold and considered more valuable for having been broken and brought back to life. It's a beautiful idea, for ceramics and literature. My writing aesthetic is more like a mug that has had its handle broken off, then repaired with gorilla glue or duct tape so that the handle is functional again, but offset like a broken nose. 

3. Eliza Robertson asks, "If you could choose anyone in the world to read your writing, who would it be?"

Donald Trump. I don't necessarily think he'd get anything out of it, but every minute that he spent reading my work would be a minute that he's not tweeting or trying to start wars or dismantling healthcare or the Environmental Protection Agency. 

4. Pasha Malla asks, "How important is it for a country to have an identifiable, national literature?"

I don't know if it's particularly important, or even necessarily a good thing. The way I see it, nationalism and a clearly defined national literature have coincided with the silencing of various voices — Indigenous, Black, Muslim or queer, for example.

I think it's more important that Canada, as a nation, and Canadians, as individuals, seek to create a country where people with different economic backgrounds, experiences, religious beliefs and cultural practices have equal access to the physical, emotional and financial resources that are required to create and sustain storytelling.   

5. George Elliott Clarke asks, "What is your favourite font — or typeface? Why?"

My tastes in font and typeface are pretty vanilla: Times Roman, Baskerville if I'm feeling adventurous. But I'm honestly grateful for all forms of digital font, as my millennial handwriting generally looks like it was pooped out by a seagull. Calibri is the default setting on my computer, so I see a lot of that until I remember to switch it over to something else. 

6. Heather O'Neill asks, "If there were to be a biopic made about your life, which actor would you want to play you? Which director would you choose to direct?"

I would want it to be someone who enjoys club soda, as that's been a pretty big part of my life for the last ten years. A friend told me how Jeremy Brett, the old BBC Sherlock Holmes, took particular pleasure in polluting fancy manor houses across England with his cigarettes, so perhaps an actor who would enjoy drinking club soda in dingy environments across northern Canada.

Lance Reddick of The Wire voice-acted a personal essay of mine for a New York Times podcast and did an amazing job. Stacia L. Brown analyzed his performance in the Washington Post and wrote about the significance of performances where an "actor's race differs from the author's." I thought that was really cool.

Or maybe the guy who played Goose in Top Gun, as an alternate? He's gone bald since the beach volleyball scene, and I think that's the direction I'm headed in a few years. As for director, as long as they aren't engaging in Weinsteinisms, I'm pretty open. If the director could make the film look like the first 45 minutes of Murnau's Faust, I'd be *eternally* grateful. 

7. Elisabeth de Mariaffi asks, "Are you a dreamer? Do you remember your dreams — and if so, are they notions or vivid with detail? Do you have a recurring dream?"

I am a dreamer. Not too long ago I had a dream about a sinister squid that was roaming the ocean around Vancouver. The squid made me very uncomfortable until a voice whispered into my ear: "Dumbledore always trusted the squid." I felt much better.

But I've had nightmares about a double suicide bombing in Afghanistan throughout my 20s and into my 30s. I dream about falling a lot. 

8. Eric McCormack asks, "Honestly, what does your writing tell you — both the good and the bad —  about yourself?"

I think about the people I've hurt or the systems I've participated in that have done damage to others. At its best, writing acknowledges difficulty and helps me imagine and engage with the person I want to be and the kind of world I'd like to live in.