Q&A with John Terpstra, carpenter, cabinetmaker and poet

I make things out of wood, like kitchen cabinets and backyard decks; and I make things out of words, like poems and books.

August 29th, 2008

Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.

Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?

John Terpstra: I make things out of wood, like kitchen cabinets and backyard decks; and I make things out of words, like poems and books.

"Writing poetry is mostly a question of waiting and of being ready."
—John Terpstra

John Terpstra

Comment: What first drew you to this work?

JT: First, the writing. My grade ten English teacher gave the class an assignment to write a poem. The night before the poem was due I sat down in front of a typewriter, put a sheet of paper in the roller, typed in the title of a song from the Beatles' latest album, and began.

I wrote short lines, in a stream-of-consciousness style, meaning that I wrote whatever came to mind—not knowing, until I wrote the words, that I had anything in mind at all. By the time I reached the bottom of the page, I knew two things: first, that this activity was absolutely essential to the world, and second, that I had to do it.

I also knew intuitively that the writing of poems had nothing to do with money. This was one of its attractions. At that time it was a virtue to not buy-in to our capitalist system.

Because writing poetry is mostly a question of waiting and of being ready, it is not something I could, or can do every day, and the reality was borne upon me soon after finishing college that I would need to do something to keep body and soul together.

I more or less walked into carpentry when the carpenter who lived across the street needed a hand. Later, I walked into a cabinet-making shop, was hired, and learned that trade also on the job.

 
Head

Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?

JT: Two woodworking experiences stand out. One was an injury with a router that lacerated the tips of two fingers. That learnt me. People comment that it must be nice to be a woodworker; they see it as a contemplative activity. I have to tell them that the only contemplation involved is one of absolute attention to the work.

The other experience came while sanding one of the many pine desk-tops we were making at the time, and suddenly getting it. That is, in a moment of woodworking revelation I suddenly understood the productive tension between quality and speed in that boring task, and was able to sand the desk-tops both quickly and well.

Reading T.S. Eliot in high school was a valuable learning experience. I was entranced by The Wasteland, without having any idea what it meant. It made me realize that you didn't have to make sense in writing. This may sound strange. But it was a comfort to my shapeless young mind to think I could write whatever came to me without the burden or responsibility of organized thought. I had no confidence that I could make sense intellectually.

Reading other poets is always a learning experience. In my case, those early poets were Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and, of course, T.S. Eliot. Later, Richard Wilbur opened up the world for me, as did Christopher Fry (verse playwright), Joyce Cary (novelist), David Jones (poet and painter), and John McPhee (journalist).

Writers rely on their intuition. I am still trying to learn that. The first poems I wrote in high school were spontaneous creations, and they immediately won awards. I could have learned from that and let myself go more often, writing-wise, but often have been afraid or inhibited by a desire to know the destination before embarking. I tried to make writing too much like work rather than the simple product of a creative heart, mind and body.

Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?

JT: Measure twice, cut once. Don't hold a two-by-four in one hand and try to cut it with a circular saw in the other. (A surprising number of the carpenters I worked with were missing the top halves of two or three fingers on their left hand.) Never stand directly behind a piece of wood you're running through a table saw. (A narrow piece of wood once shot back from the table saw and impaled itself into the wall, ten feet behind me.)

Also, the simple admonition, Look out!

The best advice in relation to writing came one Sunday morning on the front steps of church. I had read a poem during the service, as I had done before and would do again, but was bemoaning how my literary career was going nowhere and wasn't going to be helped along by my writing for church because no one in their right literary mind in this country would pay the slightest bit of attention to anything even mildly religious.

The person I was speaking to took me to task. Never underestimate the value of what you do here, she said.

I have lived with a church-world tension for as long as I can remember. Ironically, the best things began to happen professionally when I stopped making the unhelpful distinction, threw caution to the wind, and wrote whatever was given to me to write, be it overtly or more subtly "religious."

"People comment that it must be nice to be a woodworker; they see it as a contemplative activity. I have to tell them that the only contemplation involved is one of absolute attention to the work."
—John Terpstra

Kitchen Cabinets

Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?

JT: I drew cabinet-making inspiration from magazines like Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding, but after a time stopped reading them because there was only so much amazing, obsessive perfection I could take. Cabinet-making and carpentry are bread and butter for me, rather than a vocation. The reader's work-tips column in either magazine is worthwhile, though.

Currently, I draw inspiration from the two carpenters with whom I work.

Writing inspiration usually, but not always, comes directly from life. My poetry covers the ground from an incident between my hand and a woodworking machine to my parent's immigration to Canada, from the trees out of which I make furniture to the geography of the area where I live. My non-fiction has been about that same geography, and about my wife's three brothers (who had a terminal disease), to my latest book which hovers around the question of why I persist in going to church (to be published in autumn, 2009).

And everything, all down the road, partakes of the spiritual world. Writing is storytelling and art; it is the pursuit of a shadow, it is expression and a figuring-out, a making-sense, a shape-giving that suggests meaning.

 
Head

Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?

JT: My day is structured around drinking coffee and, I confess, smoking, at one-and-a-half to two hour intervals.

Weekdays divide into two halves: mornings are spent behind a desk, afternoons wrestling piles of lumber and imperial measurements with the other two carpenters who compose our current working threesome.

Comment: What are your favorite tools?

JT: Every tool, in its specialty, is a favourite.

Recently, I and a working companion spent a hot, humid afternoon breaking up concrete with a sledgehammer. As we nursed near heat-stroke that evening, I remembered that portable electric jackhammers existed, and could be rented for a nominal fee. The next day, a job that had taken us four hours to not complete by half was finished in less than an hour.

This is why you may see people standing before the tool aisle in the hardware store with a look on their face that is near to reverence. For writing, especially poetry, the tools are still pencil and paper. They are tactile, portable, complete, and sufficient. Now they even feel righteous, since they have so small a carbon footprint.

By the time a number of drafts has been produced on sheets of paper, the itch to see what the writing will look like when it is printed will require scratching, and the poem, ready or not, finds its way to the computer.

Design Hope House
Design Hope House

Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.

JT: A woodworking/art project that I did for Design Hope, a local initiative to help feed and shelter the homeless, was a particular pleasure to do. It combined woodworking skills and artistic creativity in finding and putting together in a thematic way scraps from the woodworking shop and found objects.

I built a small, open-framed, post-and-beam house. Various objects (a watch, a small plane, a bird's nest) hung from the rafters. One of the rafters was the branch of a sumac bush. I wrote a story on the windows of the house. The story could be read by moving from window to window, while swivelling the house on an invisible pedestal. It told about a homeless person I encountered, who lived alone in a sumac patch among a myriad of small objects that hung with string from the branches.

In another fund-raising project, I constructed a series of heads out of old hardware, junk, and scraps of wood from the shop.

The writing of one poem in particular, called Atonement, also delighted me. It involved a similar putting-together. I had gathered seven stories over a period of time (from the newspaper, television reports, et al.). Each attracted me for reasons I could not articulate. I did not know what to do with them. One evening, I lined the stories up in a certain order and began to write each down, in my own words. During the writing I decided to dispense with the editorial process that goes on in my head, or, to put it another way, I fired the entire level of middle management that sends a constant stream of messages concerning what is worth keeping and what should be scratched. I allowed myself total freedom.

It was the most portable poem I have ever written, and I took it everywhere. As I wrote and re-wrote the stories, they began to weave themselves together into a whole that both surprised and pleased me.

Comment: How do you plan your work?

JT: Woodworking requires some planning, because you are dealing with customers. If I get a call, I go to the person's home and we talk about their proposed project. I make a drawing, write up an estimate, and present it to them. If they accept, it is then a question of when the work will fit into my schedule of other projects.

Non-fiction better lends itself to planning than poetry. There may be reading or research that needs to be done, for instance, though the writing itself rarely follows the path set for it.

Poetry defeats planning. Not always, but usually. The spirit lists where and when it will. Attention and readiness is required; the pencil poised, but not gripped too tightly.

All writing is a venturing into the white arctic frontier, every day, with elation and terror in equal measure.

Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?

JT: Many of my woodworking customers are also friends, or members of a wider community, and I am known locally as a woodworking writer. I have written in the city newspaper, have published articles, poems and a book about this city, have been called upon to give talks, slideshows and readings, have won local and national writing awards and garnered some national attention for a couple of books in particular.

The connection extends into my immediate and larger spiritual community as well. I've written numerous poems that were initially intended to be read on Sunday morning (to musical accompaniment), as well as prayers, which have found a wider audience.

My work and my life feel integrated. I am very fortunate, and grateful.

Topics: Arts Vocation
 

John Terpstra's latest non-fiction work, Skin Boat: Acts of Faith and Other Navigations, appeared from Gaspereau Press in 2009. His previous non-fiction work, The Boys, or Waiting for the Electrician's Daughter was short-listed for both the Charles Taylor Prize and the BC Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He is also the author of eight works of poetry, the most recent being Two or Three Guitars: Selected Poems (2007). An earlier work, Disarmament, was short-listed for Canada's Governor General's Award. He has won the CBC Radio Literary Prize for Poetry, the Bressani Prize, and several Arts Hamilton book awards in both poetry and non-fiction.

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