Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why David Alexander gives a cluck about writing poetry on chickens

The author of the poetry collection After The Hatching Oven answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
David Alexander is a poet based in Toronto. (Carlos Pinto/Nightwood Editions)

David Alexander is a poet and author based in Toronto. His debut poetry collection After the Hatching Oven looks the common chicken — including its unique and overlooked place in history and popular culture — and why society should have a lot more empathy and respect for the domesticated bird. 

Below, Alexander takes the CBC Books Q&A, answering eight questions submitted by eight of his peers.

1. Adeena Karasick asks, "Is there a game or a toy from your childhood, that now that you look back on it, has influenced your writing in unexpected yet powerful ways?"

Let's start things off extra-nerdy and say role-playing games, which is basically imaginative play within an external framework. Some of my best poems (if I can be trusted to say so) start with a character in mind, some version of myself. I love a good dramatic monologue. Inventing characters to inhabit and explore imaginary worlds was nice practice for this, so I have to credit my friend Ben for providing such opportunities.

2. Laura Ritland asks, "What advice would you have given to yourself as a writer five years ago?"

If I could go back a bit further, to my mid-20s, I would tell myself to do all the things I started doing differently in my early 30s. Find other writers, spend time engaging with peers and learning from mentors, read and submit to literary journals, stop playing video games. It would have been nice to do all of that before I had kids.

3. Helen Humphreys asks, "If you weren't a writer, what would you be, and why?"

A character. If I were bolder or more colourful, I think I'd have more adventures.

4. Donato Mancini asks, "Are there certain words you think everyone else uses incorrectly?"

Of many words whose cultural and commercial connotations are in tension with their etymology, 'humane' comes quickly to mind. Humane deportations and executions are easy to spot as compassion camouflage, but as author of a book about chickens, I'll add humanely raised and humanely killed to the list of euphemisms. For a word so closely connected to understanding ourselves as social animals, and our humanity as a shared aspiration for empathy, we take a lot of liberties. Indeed, the word is frequently used as cover to take liberty, to sanitize systemic acts of domination or violence. Perhaps humane death gains purchase so easily because we wish our own deaths might be so.

5. Anne Michaels asks, "Should real art be anonymous?"

Cultural production is rooted in a time and place, a set of concerns. In the absence of a known author or artist, it seems to become necessary to invent one. Can art be extracted and made acultural? Can an artist be egoless?

6. Shilpi Somaya Gowda asks, "Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?

I used to get stuck for a couple of reasons: I didn't have anything interesting to say, and I didn't have an interesting way to say it. Today, I'm more confident in gauging whether my writing is headed in a compelling direction. But as person with a demanding job and two young kids, I have more ideas than time to write, so things tend to come quickly when I have time for it. When I'm stuck, it's useful to throw myself into reading and research. 'If you're bored then you're boring' seems like an appropriate aphorism here.

7. Hartley Lin asks, "What activity that has nothing to do with writing do you highly recommend to other writers?"

This applies more to myself than anyone else: Be a force for good in some small, human way. I hope that my poetry is engaged in such a project, and it takes a great deal of work to (sometimes fail to) do that well. But it is also vital to make one's voice heard in noisy, unpoetic ways. Phone an elected official. Show up to public meetings. Engage with the wider world. Be present for someone. Help others.

8. Aisha Sasha John asks, "What do you care nothing about?"

I can't say.