Greg Santos is the author of three full-length poetry books, most recently GHOST FACE (2020), the poetry pamphlet BLACKBIRDS, and two chapbooks, TWEET TWEET TWEET and OBLIVION AVENUE. He holds degrees from The New School (MFA in Creative Writing), Concordia University (BA in Creative Writing and English Literature), and Mount Allison University (BA in Drama). His writing has been featured in The League of Canadian Poets’ Poetry Pause series, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem in Your Pocket Day booklets, The Walrus, This Magazine, Queen’s Quarterly, Geist, Vallum, Matter: a journal of poetry and political commentary, The Feathertale Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Best American Poetry blog, and World Literature Today.
Santos regularly works with at-risk communities and teaches at The Thomas More Institute. He is the Editor in Chief of the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s carte blanche magazine. He is an adoptee of Cambodian, Portuguese, and Spanish heritage. He lives in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal with his wife and two children.
How do you begin a poem? Is it a thought, a line, a title?
I often kick start a poem with an image or a line that I find surprising. Then I get excited about holding its hand and seeing where the piece will lead me.
You’ve published 3 books of poetry since 2010. What has been the biggest change from your first to third book?
I’m incredibly proud and fond of my first full-length poetry collection, The Emperor’s Sofa. I’m grateful to DC Books for taking a chance on, what I consider, a strange and surreal collection of poems. I was still discovering myself as a poet. The book originated as my grad school thesis so it is very much an amalgamation of work that I admired at the time.
As an emerging writer, I did not want identity to be my main focus. It wasn’t something I was necessarily conscious of but in retrospect, as a person of colour, part of me didn’t want to be known as an individual who solely writes about his background, traumas, and identity. I was still figuring that side of myself out. While I was writing poems that touched on these subjects back then, I was not ready to share them with the public yet.
In 2018, I wrote a short poetry pamphlet titled Blackbirds with a different publisher, Black Spring Press Group, based out of the UK. I felt like this was an opportunity to try something new. With Blackbirds, I wanted to explore poems that touched on my unique background as a Montreal-born Cambodian transracial adoptee who was raised by my immigrant parents from Spain and Portugal. I wasn’t sure how the collection would be received but after an overall positive experience with its reception, this gave me the opening to delve deeper into the poems that would ultimately make up my 3rd DC Books collection, Ghost Face.
How does editing the work of others influence your own writing?
Writing poetry can be such a solitary experience that I find editing, teaching, and working with others to be an incredibly rewarding experience creatively. It gets me out of my head and into focusing on the literary community at large. I have been fortunate to have had many mentors and helpers assisting me along my writing journey, so I feel it is important to give back and be helpful to others. Even when I am not literally writing, I am “writing” by editing, planning, teaching, and reading.
What makes carte blanche unique in Canadian literary magazines?
carte blanche is a unique literary magazine for a number of reasons. It was founded in 2004 by members of the Quebec Writers’ Federation and we have been associated with the organization ever since. We have also always been an online journal – except for when we created a couple of special edition print issues when I first came aboard the masthead in 2012. At carte blanche we like to say “there is more than one way to tell a story” and I truly believe that. I would like to think that we offer an inclusive space and platform for a diverse array of writers and artists from Quebec and beyond with paid opportunities to share their stories with our readers.
Who are some of your favourite Montreal writers?
Cora Siré, Jason Camlot, Gillian Sze, Heather O’Neill, Larissa Andrusyshyn, Carolyne Van Der Meer, Klara du Plessis, and Joshua Levy, to name a few. I feel like I have been fortunate to get to know and become friends with Montreal writers that I admire.
How does geography and home play into your poetry?
At first “geography” and “home” were themes that did not really feature in my poems when I was starting out. As I found myself traveling a lot as a graduate student in the United States and then following my wife to Paris, France when she received a research fellowship for her PhD, it was then that the experience of being a Canadian expat and somewhat of a nomad started seeping into my writing.
What are you working on now?
Over the past few years, I have been continuously working on a manuscript inspired by Beaver Hall Group painter, Anne Savage. My childhood home was the house she lived in for much of her adult life. I have been haunted by Savage’s life story and work and this is a project that has meant a great deal to me. It has been on pause while I have been focusing on Ghost Face, but I am eager to return to work on it.
When do you know a poem is finished?
After putting a poem aside for a while and returning to it, I will usually tweak it quite a bit before it feels complete. I know when a poem is finished when I no longer want to keep fine-tuning it anymore.