Shut Up and Read the Poem

Photo by Cindy-Lou Trofimuk.

Photo by Cindy-Lou Trofimuk.

Thomas Trofimuk invites me to Bistro Praha, a gourmet café in Edmonton, to share his creative writing experience. The spot holds much significance for Trofimuk: he spent many late nights in his early years writing there among a scene of inspiring characters. Trofimuk shares with me stories of that time, including a tale of the late Frantisek Cikanek, who believed that champagne was best enjoyed by guzzling the whole flute at once and appreciating the tingly release of the bubbles with a large belch.

Trofimuk is brimming with stories—a great trait for any writer—but what I need to pass on from our meeting is the advice he offers while we enjoy coffee and wine. (And sadly, I drank the former as, while wine eases the tongue, it fogs the memory.)

As a writer, Trofimuk has held many different jobs. Despite having three books under his belt, he still does other work to pay the bills. Back in the early ’80s, Trofimuk wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, so he took a journalism program at Grant MacEwan Community College, and worked for the St. Albert Gazette and the Edmonton Sun. At these papers, he sometimes “worked the rim,” which is journalism speak for the odd jobs done in layout: writing headlines, copyediting, etc. He learnt useful skills for a writer, like taking criticism and writing to a deadline, but after about two years, he returned to his education—this time at the University of Alberta.

In the writing program, Trofimuk had written a story—which he now describes as “dumb”—about a couple in the shadow of some mountains. As the couple has a serious discussion about what the other would do if one died, the shadow grows larger and larger. When they’re about to have an epiphany regarding their relationship, the story ends: “Darkness falls on them and kills them both.” Trofimuk recalls that, after reading the story, his prof told him to “run off to the mountains and write until you have a novel.” That encouragement set fire to Trofimuk’s writing career, and the story was his first published.

Since then, Trofimuk has found a place for his talents in government. He spent time as a speech writer, where he dabbled with the power of metaphors to influence people. “You become the wizard,” he says, “because no one else gets it.” Currently, he produces an annual report for one of the departments in the Alberta government, which requires him to amalgamate texts from dozens of people and mould them into one unified voice.

Throughout his career, Trofimuk has also focussed on unifying the writing community. He’s a founding member of the Stroll of Poets Society (which connects poets with audiences through reading series and an anthology), and soon after that, he began the Raving Poets with his friends Mark Kozub, Gordon McRae, Michael Gravel, and Randall Edwards. People would flood to the Kasbar Lounge on Whyte Ave. on Wednesday evenings to hear poetry readings, which—and this was the appeal—Trofimuk and the Raving Poets band would improvise music for. Over ten years, the crowds and the band grew until Trofimuk and his friends decided to retire the event with a grand finale, which even former mayor Stephen Mandel attended.

As Trofimuk talks about his career, he peppers the discussion with wisdom on writing and his process. He writes because he wants to explore how ordinary people react when faced with extraordinary circumstances. Trofimuk explains, “Will they act heroically or buckle? It fascinates me.” He doesn’t believe in writer’s block, possibly because he stops writing when it’s going good. “You’ll always be pulled back into it the next day,” he says. He’s also held in the writing by the story’s beginning. Trofimuk polishes the first section of his story so that he can re-read it when the going gets tough. It gives him hope, though that section rarely remains at the beginning. Trofimuk rewrites and rewrites; his most recent novel, Waiting for Columbus, went through fifty-two drafts.

Trofimuk also offers a tip for a successful poetry reading: don’t explain what you’re about to read; your piece should speak for itself. “Shut up and read the poem,” he elaborates. “If you need to speak to become comfortable with the audience, say something stupid to get them used to the sound of your voice and then read.” Above all, Trofimuk wishes the following to be the greatest takeaway for emerging writers: “If you have a novel in you, write the damn thing and send it to a publisher.”

Matthew Stepanic


Watch for Thomas Trofimuk’s forthcoming novel, and sign up to receive his weekly sorbets (or raw, unfinished snapshot poems) at thomastrofimuk.com/sorbets.

To read an excerpt from a future project by Thomas Trofimuk, order the Winter 2014 issue here.