Adrien Smart interview and exclusive video
Featuring white knuckles/red tablecloth
by Adrien Smart
Victoria-based video poet Adrien Smart may be new to the Canadian poetry scene, but his honest verse and well-crafted short films are already making waves out on the island. The Blasted Tree caught up with him this summer to pick his brain about life, loss, and the production of video poetry. Adrien kindly put together an exclusive film for us, the marvelous WHITE KNUCKLES/RED TABLECLOTH, which we are delighted to share with you, along with some of his other creations. Watch WHITE KNUCKLES/RED TABLECLOTH below, then read our interview with the talented Mr. Smart after the jump!
Blasted Tree: First, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?
Adrien Smart: I go to the University of Victoria, and I’m in my fifth and final semester over there in the Creative Writing program. I mostly do fiction and screenwriting stuff, and I had never really tried poetry very much, but the second I started, it snowballed into something more, and I just loved it. Other than writing I’m a big movie guy, and am constantly watching whatever the best movies of all time are on IMDB. I would chip my way down that list whenever I had free time and try to find inspiration for writing from that. I usually have to be listening to music or watching a movie, and then I’ll get an idea for something. I reference things around me, so that’s pretty big in what I try to do.
BT: Did you first start writing poetry through school and the Creative Writing program?
AS: No, actually I started writing poetry about a year ago. In school I was doing workshops for fiction, short stories, and screenwriting. What ended up happening was that I had a close friend pass away. I was looking for something different to do with my life that I hadn’t figured out yet and I had always really loved putting words together and trying to connect with people through my own thoughts and feelings, trying to find that middle ground where you can really get feelings across. I started watching a lot of spoken word stuff and thought, “Well, this is cool, this is kind of like what I’m doing in screenwriting” – very vivid, easy to understand pictures that people paint of a situation. The further you get into a situation, you find the subtext or the real emotional core that’s at the center. It was great because my fiction kind of sounds like a screenplay and my poetry kind of sounds like something else that I’m not really sure of. I know it’s different, but I’m not really sure how, and that’s where I’m at with the poetry thing. It’s just a hobby and a new discovery that completely came out of nowhere, and it’s helped me to cope with some of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It feels like it’s that way for everyone. Whenever I watch a spoken-word poet, when they’re doing something really personal, I’m like, “Aw man, this probably took a lot of balls to write.” I really have that appreciation for other poets.
BT: When did it first occur to you to film yourself reciting poetry?
AS: It started off as wanting to see what I could do. It’s so unlike what I usually write. I just sat down and wrote a poem, I didn’t edit it at all for fear of getting away from the point I was trying to make, and within 20 minutes I had written a poem and put it online – “Here, Facebook, this is my first poem.” It was about my friend that I had lost, and everyone loved it and said, “Adrien, you gotta keep doing this, you’re clearly on to something here.” It came from really liking hip hop lyrics, the flow and energy that they put in. Also the fact I like being a face, I like how people can see the voice of the person performing it, you know? That’s where videotaping came from, wanting to see what I looked like saying it because I had no idea, and I wasn’t about to go up to people and be like, “Hey, do you want to hear a poem I wrote?” It’s a shy way to do it, and that’s kind of who I am.
BT: That’s interesting, because at a reading you can have 20 or 30 people in a room, but when you share a video on Facebook it could go anywhere.
AS: I love that exposure idea. Have you heard of the spoken-word guy Watsky? He’s a rapper/poet. He started off doing viral videos, doing his own thing with it, then moved into trying to mix hip hop and music into his thing. It’s definitely a good way to go about it.
BT: You have one of his songs in your Greatest Hits collection, which is pretty sweet. That collection shows you have a strong relationship between music on one side and poetry on the other. How does that work for you? When you’re listening to those songs, how do you translate them into poetry?
AS: It’s kind of the way I write anything. Any time I’m putting something on the page, usually music is the thing that queued it up or gives me a feeling like… I don’t know. I get really into my music, so whenever I put on the headphones I feel like I’m in it. When I’m trying to write at the same time it usually ends up playing like a movie in my head and I try to find words and queues that will paint that picture for someone else when I read it out loud. Each of those songs in Greatest Hits was one I had heard at some point in my life that had a really strong meaning, a song someone liked or that I heard somewhere, and they worked to evoke that poetry. It was basically a word-vomit experiment where I said, “It has to be a minute long, I don’t care which song it is, just something, because I have to get practice doing this.” It turned into 22 poems, pretty short and sweet each one. Some felt more like the songs than others. There’s a Mos Def one where I wrote the poem after listening to the song, then listened to an instrumental with my poem over top of it, and it almost sounded like they lined up. So, I’d say that the connection between the music I listen to and the poems I write is massive.
BT: You mention at the end of Greatest Hits #1 that, for you, an important aspect of the poetry is performance. Do you do much in the way of live readings?
AS: Yeah, I’ve done a couple open mics. The poetry scene isn’t as good as it could be here in Victoria. I was trying to get my own open mic thing going so I could find an outlet, I know tons of poets and writers here who just don’t have an outlet to do their thing. I think Greatest Hits #1 was one of my last poems speaking directly to a webcam and not trying to edit it, and the message of that one was, “I gotta stop sitting around hiding behind a computer lens and start actually putting myself out there.” Because it only hits you so hard when you’re watching it through the computer. There’s some awesome essence to the live stuff that I can’t get enough of, but I just need to find more opportunities to do it.
BT: Listening to someone recite their own poetry can get your hair standing on end, if you know what we mean. You do a great job of capturing that on film, especially when you put direction and editing into it. How do you translate what you’ve put on the page into something which become a more composed video?
AS: It usually comes from reading it constantly. Apart from the first one I wrote, where I didn’t edit anything, now I edit thoroughly and make sure that every word sounds right together. I don’t have a lot of training with poetry, and so basically if it sounds good it probably sounds good to other people too. So I just repeat and repeat, and then I substitute a word when I want to play with sibilance or ‘g’ and ‘k’ noises, stuff like that, and really bring it out. I usually try to fit the theme, but it comes from listening to my own voice constantly. Sometimes I get sick of them, sometimes I don’t.
BT: You were born in France and spent a fair amount of time in Calgary. Now you’re out in Victoria. How do these different places influence your poetry?
AS: Calgary was where I was from when I could start making memories until I finished high school and was ready to go away to university, so any poems I write about Calgary are super reflective and distant. The video I made in my kitchen, called Pessac, is all about the different phases of who I was and what Calgary meant to me. It was this place that was really dreamy but almost depressing in its own way, somewhere I felt I needed to get away from. That doesn’t happen nowadays – when I come as an adult it’s great to visit, but something about growing up there seems really distant, and that’s some really fun stuff to tap into when it comes to the poetry. Victoria is fantastic because there are so many fellow artists here, and this is where I made all my friends that are doing exactly what I’m doing. It’s a nice little city. The poetry I write here is usually really eclectic and upbeat, trying to counter the quiet small town vibe that I’m in. I haven’t written too many poems specifically about Victoria, it’s mostly been about people or situations here, so Calgary is the most reflective side of the whole process.
BT: Speaking about reflecting, C is one of our favorite poems of yours so far. It’s intensely reflective, there’s a lot of honesty in it, and the video you made is great. You mention how integrating some these difficult experiences is cathartic for you. What is it like sharing that raw emotion with other people, whether it’s live or through a video?
AS: It’s pretty wild when you take something that you know that people know what you’re talking about. There’s no one here in Victoria who’s seen the poem and knows who I am and doesn’t know exactly what that’s about. They’re watching someone piece by piece try to analyze the loss of a friend who they also had, and so it’s hard for people to listen to because it’s so personal for them as well. There was so much stuff that people weren’t talking about in terms of losing Matt, and I wanted to be the guy who was unafraid to get up there and say, “Look, this is fucked. Everything was falling apart, and after some time had passed, we felt like we had to act like everything was OK.” That’s what the whole C poem was about, getting at that raw part that feels like it could really tear the room apart when you sit down and think about grief for a little too long. A lot of poems are for myself to get over something, but I feel like many of my friends were moving forward better when they heard someone else talk about it. That was a pretty important one, and that’s probably one of my favorites as well in terms of how cathartic it was to get everything off my chest.
BT: Do you have a similar sort of experience with the poem repeating it over time, or do you have a different relationship to the poem or situation as you go through it again and again?
AS: I think that I enjoy C more each time I do it because I get to change where I put the emphasis on things. The video that I recorded, I think it was in August or September, that one got really raw in the middle and was almost me shouting. It seemed like this cheated voice came out, where I was acting like I was cheated out of something. But that kind of starts at the start now, then I move into a more empowering voice like: “Look, we’ve lost something but you’ve got to build for something, you’ve got to have your goals, and you’ve got to not let the passing of someone hinder you. You’ve got to be doing it for someone if you’ve lost them.” That’s what it’s changed into, and I think it’s in a good direction, a more grown up direction. It’s only been about a year, and even less since I wrote it, and it was really unrestrained when I wrote it. Now I’ve learned how to tame it and let different parts shine out in the new iterations of my readings.
BT: We’ve noticed that besides death, which you touch on several time in your poetry, you also reference alcohol quite a bit. This plays into other artists’ methods – Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober” – and there’s examples all over the place of people who use alcohol or something else like that. Does this contribute at all to your method, or is it something you try to avoid?
AS: In university everyone is drinking, it’s a huge part of student culture. Sometimes I get super down when I’m drinking and I really try to push back and avoid it, but I can’t deny it’s that thing that really shows who you are, or when you’re really affected by something. When I talk about booze in the poems it usually is breaking down who you’re trying to make other people see you as and who you actually are. That’s pretty pessimistic, but I think it’s definitely a recurring theme, and one that reflects my thoughts on drinking, overdrinking, hangovers... Nothing make you want to write more than a hangover. “Oh God, this feels terrible. I could spill my guts out right now.” It usually ends up happening, lots of hung over writing, but I definitely try to find the balance there.
BT: Do you find it easy to write with a hangover because that’s maybe when your ego or critical voice is at its weakest?
AS: [Laughter] Oh yeah, for sure. Or, actually… now that I think about it, I’m more critical of myself when I’m hung over. If I don’t have a workshop full of people telling me how to do it, then I’ve got myself telling me what I’m doing wrong. So, it’s a pretty good tool for that, I guess, if you can call a hangover a tool for editing.
BT: How do you find the Creative Writing workshops?
AS: I think they’re great. When I first went in, I was super nervous and I didn’t really want to step on anyone’s toes. “Hey, I don’t know what your style is like, and I don’t know if you were trying to do this, but you might want to consider doing it.” I don’t know, super general fill-in-the-blanks stuff. I initially was pretty hesitant to speak my mind about someone else’s work, but after about two years with the same group of people you learn how to trust each other, you get other people’s opinions, and you know who’s going to come at a story from what angle just from your exposure to them. I think if there’s another way to get a group of writers to really lock in and trust their peers, it couldn’t be better than a workshop.
BT: After having grown within that sort of context, what sort of advice do you have to share with someone who is just beginning?
AS: I’d say definitely kill your darlings. If there’s something amazing that you really, really feel like you need to put in there, chances are you haven’t weighed it against what you could amplify from your worst points. Take your bad ideas and riff on them constantly until they’re good, because if you feel like you have this magnificent idea to start off with, chances are there’s a couple plot holes or reasons it’s not as good as it could be. Let’s say you’ve got this amazing character, he’s just the most well-rounded dude and the audience is going to love him, but all the rest of the stuff in your story isn’t making much sense, so you’ve got to amplify that and tone him down so you’ve got something more balanced. If I had advice for somebody starting out, have faith that people aren’t trying to ruin your story and that they’re really just trying to help you to your fullest potential.
BT: You mentioned screenplays as well. What do you focus on when you’re writing screenplays?
AS: Well, this was mostly in high school that I was actually film making. Right now I write screenplays for school, whatever the guidelines are: “Write a pilot, write a short film.” I used to direct music videos. I’d find a song I really liked which made me feel a certain way, and I would go out and shoot a faux music video for it, purely images, they rarely had actors, but I would always be trying to show something with it, show a different side to it. Nowadays I’m trying to write more character pieces. I really like reading Quentin Tarantino’s scripts before I actually see the movie because he’s such a visual dude, and the way he describes things is always perfect. He has a really good way of translating it onto the screen. I know there’s consensus that he’s a good director, but he’s one guy who makes really fun-to-read scripts. So I try to think about getting funny characters with genuine dialogue going. That’s definitely the biggest change in my screenplays – making basic music video-type stuff like, “Hey, grab a gloomy Radiohead song and lets film me driving, or film someone else driving, being all pensive.” Now it’s about putting two people in a room, give it some ridiculous context, and let shit hit the fan. It’s two completely different ways of writing, but that’s just what you do as you grown up, change your tactics.
BT: We’ve read some of the short stories you have up on your website, and they seem to be more comedic or satirical in nature. Do you write much in that style?
AS: Yeah, most of my fiction is trying to be comedic and almost all of my poetry is serious. It’s always been like that. Well, I mean the poetry is so new that I’m just now trying to find ways to be funny with it. Maybe I’ll throw in a line that makes people giggle, but then it’s juxtaposed with a very real statement. I write dark comedy and stuff like that for short stories. I’m usually trying to say something sarcastically, or amplify something to the point of becoming ridiculous. So, the fiction is funny, the poems are not funny; I need to find a way to be a little more balanced, sort of mesh things in the middle.
BT: We’re curious, how did you first hear about The Blasted Tree?
AS: Actually, I have friend who lived in Montreal, and she was the one who said, “If you’re looking for publications, these guys are awesome. They’ve got this alternative vibe, and the stuff they’re publishing is great.” There’s no smoke and mirror act like, “Who are these people?” You guys manage to find good writers, and I thought, “This is the kind of place I can see myself getting into.” You guys were the first place I’ve ever sent a video poem, and I was wondering if I was ready to start claiming I’m a poet, or if a year is too short. But I’m glad I went with it, it’s yielding some good results and I’m glad to be working with you guys.
BT: Well, we’re thoroughly impressed with all your videos so far and think we’re a good fit. You represent yourself very earnestly, and that’s the number one quality we’re looking for when going through submissions.
AS: I’m really glad to be doing it. It came from a really dark place, and it’s turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life. In terms of being constructive to my personality, my self-worth and confidence, there’s nothing I’ve had more compliments from than what I’m doing now. I feel like I’m on to something and I’m happy to keep doing it.
BT: All the power to you! We totally think you’re on to something as well and encourage you to keep going. Thanks for sitting down to chat with us, we couldn’t be more excited about working with you and for the Blasted Tree exclusive you’ve made us.
AS: Thank you, and I hope you enjoy White Knuckles/Red Tablecloth!