Friday, July 22, 2016

U of Alberta writers-in-residence interviews: Minister Faust (2014-15)

For the sake of the fortieth anniversary of the writer-in-residence program (the longest lasting of its kind in Canada) at the University of Alberta, I have taken it upon myself to interview as many former University of Alberta writers-in-residence as possible [see the ongoing list of writers here]. See the link to the entire series of interviews (updating weekly) here.

Minister Faust is a novelist, print/radio/television journalist, blogger, sketch comedy writer, video game writer, playwright, and poet. He also taught high school and junior high English literature and composition for a decade.

He was writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta during the 2014-15 academic year.

Q: When you began your residency, you’d already produced fiction, plays, stage writing and sketch comedy, as well as video games. Where did you feel you were in your writing? What did the opportunity mean to you?

A: I was comfortable with my writing and I appreciated the opportunity to teach people, which I had done for ten years.

Q: What do you feel your time as writer-in-residence at University of Alberta allowed you to explore in your work? Were you working on anything specific while there, or was it more of an opportunity to expand your repertoire?

A: I had the chance to plan and research several projects, and spent a great deal of time working with local writers on meeting their goals, as well as promoting local artists through the Authorpaloozas and launching MF GALAXY to talk with writers about the business and craft of writing.

Q: Were there any encounters that stood out?

Everyone stood out. One person I’d like to mention Tweeted that he was grateful for all the help I’d given him on his story, which had gotten published. My advice was, “Don’t change a word.”

Q: Was this your first residency?

A: Yes.

Q: The bulk of writers-in-residence at the University of Alberta have been writers from outside the province. As an Edmonton-based writer, how did it feel to be acknowledged locally through the position?

A: I strongly appreciated the opportunity to work with local writers to help them build their skills and their reach, and to publicize the outstanding literary community we have here.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Randy Lundy

Randy Lundy is a member of the Barren Lands (Cree) First Nation, Brochet, MB. Born Thompson, in northern Manitoba, he has lived most of his life in Saskatchewan. He grew up near Hudson Bay, SK, just a stone’s throw from the confluence of the Fir, Etamomi, and Red Deer Rivers.

He completed a B.A. (Hons.) and an M.A. in English at the University of Saskatchewan, where he studied religion, philosophy, and Indigenous literatures, completing a thesis on the plays of Tomson Highway.

He has published two books of poetry, Under the Night Sun and Gift of the Hawk. 2016 will see the publication of a third books of poems, Blackbird Song.

His poetry has been widely anthologised, including in the seminal texts Native Poetry in Canada: A Contemporary Anthology and An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English. His poetry has appeared in anthologies in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.

He has also published scholarly articles on writing and on the work of Tomson Highway and Daniel David Moses.

Randy writes short stories and is currently working on a manuscript, Certainties, for publication.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, my first book, Under the Night Sun, probably only inflated my ego. But it did offer me the opportunity to teach creative writing, which has been a great blessing to me. Some amazing students who have taught me more than I ever knew about writing. It's something I have been doing now since 2000. You know, when the book came out, I thought the writing was amazing. Now (and that was in 1999), I look back at it and see that there are only a couple of decent poems. I am glad for those decent poems, but I guess I have just matured a bit. I hope.

I did some bad things in Saskatoon when I was going to university, just silly young man things, and I fell in and out of love and all that stuff is in that book.

Under the Night Sun and Gift of the Hawk are composed of lyric poems. I know that's unfashionable these days, but it's what I can do. Blackbird Song will be more of the same. My first teachers were the critters both in and around where I grew up. Those and the trees and stones and rivers etc. After those teachers, it was Archibald Lampman's nature sonnets and then later Patrick Lane, Atwood, Cohen, and the whole crew.

In the midst of editing the first book, Patrick suggested I was a bit of a romantic, and of course he was right. Still am, always will be.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Good question. Well, I understand how the long sentences one can construct in prose might be seen to represent a river or a ridge, I used to sit on the rocks in the middle of the Red Deer river and listen to the water running. To me, it sounded full of syllables, but short, tumbling. The bird calls were not prose but poems.

I guess I am still trying to imitate that as best I can.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Writing is not a project me. It’s just how I live. So I don’t ever stop writing, in my head that is. Getting it down on paper is always hard, and then comes the endless process of revision. That’s tough business. Luckily for me, if not for the reader, generally the first drafts are fairly close to the final version.

But that’s an oversimplification. First drafts are carried inside my bones before they ever become first drafts. Everything else gets thrown away.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Poems always begin with an image that I have to find the idea to express. Or it’s the idea I have to find an image to express. The two are constantly united, melded.

I am definitely a writer of shorter pieces (at least for now) that combine into something I could not anticipate. I know the use of the term ‘organic’ is way to overused, but the work does figure itself out. Then you just have to look and listen.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading to people. And I love being read to. Reminds me of childhood. And I guess like many I like being the center of attention and having eyes on me.

Then again, that’s not what it’s about. To refer to Patrick Lane again: “It’s the poem that matters.” So if readings keep me from writing or make me forget why I am doing it, then that’s a problem.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Theoretical concerns. Well, I have a problem with post-structuralist / post-modern theories that would have it that language is about language and never reaches the world. I think it’s malarkey. The same world, the same earth, that gave birth to us gave birth to our various languages. Language is a marriage between human consciousness and the world.

Of course, I am Cree (not to the exclusion of my paternal ancestors) and I am interested in the earth and all of its various creatures because they are truly our kin.

So for me, I am interested in how we are formed by the world. We’re just a part of it, looking from inside it. If that doesn’t point us toward current questions, then we are in deep trouble, as we seem to be.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Well, we are certainly not “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley put it in his defense of poetry. I think our roles as writers should be to engage people in dialogue.

I do not really feel qualified to answer the question, but I am certain that writers have a role. Maybe many would disagree.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with an editor is definitely difficult and essential. For my first two books I was lucky to work with Patrick Lane and Daniel David Moses, and I learned much from each of them. Different things, but I learned much. Important to get out of our own heads, I suppose.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This is turning into a Pat Lane tribute, but the poem is what matters so just get your own ass out of the way. Look and listen. Another of my favourite poets, Jane Hirshfield, has a chapter in her book Nine Gates titled “The World Is Large and Full of Noises,” so just shut up dummy and listen.

And I guess I have to credit the Buddha for letting me know to just be where you are.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t really have a writing routine, except I walk and look and listen and see what is offered to me. A typical day begins with a cigarette, coffee, getting the dogs fed and watered, and then rushing off to teach. The dogs are good people. They have taught me much about what it means to be human.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Inspiration. Well, of course, one of the meanings is to breathe in, rather than expire. So I turn to the birds—the merlins and doves and hawks. Also, I turn to writers I respect: Louise Gluck, Joanna Klink from UMontana, and especially Charles Wright. I cannot even get through a single Charles Wright poem without having to sit down and write. Mostly I just steal from him.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Hmm, well, the smell of freshly baked bread in my Irish grandmother’s kitchen. My Irish kohkum, Reta, always was and is my home. And the smell of garbage in the burning barrel at my aunt and uncle’s farm north of Hudson Bay. Old Spice aftershave on my father.

And the “fragrance” of the bush in the spring.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Nature I’ve said enough about. I’m starting to sound like a pagan. Guess I must be one.

Music? Don’t get me started. I like hand drum music, Delta blues, outlaw country, to name a few favourites. Science and visual art I understand are indispensable, but I don’t really understand those disciplines. The kinds of music I enjoy celebrate the rhythms of the natural world and humans and human bodies as part of that.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve already been name dropping here, so I’ll try to keep this brief and mention a few folks I haven’t already. There are a great many damned fine Indigenous writers I would be remiss not to name: Maria Campbell, Louise Halfe, Gregory Scofield, Armand Ruffo, Linda Hogan (whose book The Book of Medicines should be required reading for poets), Sherwin Bitsui.

Also, I have to name Gary Snyder, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, Jan Zwicky, Sheri Benning. Also Don Domanski is fantastic.

Recently bumped into a small book by Elena Johnson, Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, which is a really special book.

Probably I should stop there before I get carried away.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Climb Macchu Picchu, visit the Deer Park where Buddha had his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, have dinner with Pablo Neruda and Jean-Paul Sartre—none of which are likely to happen.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Any other occupation? Stand-up comedian, graffiti artist, whitikow, or Professional Trickster.

If I had not ended up being a writer, I would have ended up working in the bush or at a mill in Hudson Bay. The economy wouldn’t have kept me gainfully employed, so then I would have ended up drinking too much and smoking too much weed.

Maybe this sounds silly, bit I feel like writing and teaching are vocations for me. Just what I should be doing.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Oh heck, I think I just answered that. Nothing else I wanted to do.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape. Last great film I watched was something on Netflix: Jumbo Wild, about the competing interests of development and natural / spiritual integrity.

19 - What are you currently working on?
Well, new manuscript of poetry trying to explore the connections between Indigenous sensibilities, Buddhism, and the nature of memory.

That and some short stories, which I am just fooling around with because for me it’s a new genre and I don’t feel like I should know what I am doing in the same way I put myself under pressure when trying to write a poem.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ongoing notes: the ottawa small press book fair (part two,

Did you see my prior series of notes here? Or, really, my notes from the fair prior to that? I have so many notes on so many things. Should I even possibly start thinking about the dates for the fall fair? So much to do, so much to do.

[Kyp Harness, listening intently to Claire Farley at the Canthius table] Ottawa/Toronto ON: The second issue (spring/summer 2016) of Canthius, a journal of “feminism & literary arts” [see my recent interview with co-editor Claire Farley at Queen Mob’s Teahouse], includes, at the offset, a short note from the editors:

As editors of a new literary journal, we are still negotiating how best to promote gender equity. While our association with feminism could obligate us to publish works with overtly feminist themes, we’ve opted instead to offer a diversity of women and genderqueer writers space to share experiences and perspectives, no matter what those may be.

Now that they’ve two issues of their semi-annual journal under their belt (and seeking work for a third), one can’t help but be impressed by the clarity of vision editors Cira Nickel and Claire Farley have for Canthius, a journal of poetry, fiction and visual art. This new new issue includes new writing by an impressive list of writers both new and emerging, including Catriona Wright, Jacqueline Valencia, Sandra Ridley, Chuqiao Yang, Frances Boyle and Mary Ma, as well as artwork by Mary Grisey. In a certain sense, it’s far too easy to produce a first issue: the hard part is in producing a second, and a third; this becomes even more difficult without having a clear sense of what you wish to accomplish before you even begin, and their mandate is focused, open and incredibly straightforward, even as they, as they say, still work to negotiate the ways in which they can assist in promoting writing, thinking and conversation. As they infer in their introduction, if one wishes for a proper conversation of any sort, one requires the input of more than a select few.

We fail to name this right / without the words
For lapsing / lilies / wilted / in the beginning
Wind caught nothing / but your leaf unfurled
To fall. (“Dirge,” Sandra Ridley)

Given the limitations of a semi-annual journal, they’ve also been opening up their blog for further materials, including notifications, interviews, poems and non-fiction. So far, they’ve held launches for each issue in both Ottawa and Toronto (where each of the co-editors live). It will be interesting to see just how this journal continues to grow over the next couple of years.

[Meagan Black, sitting the Arc Poetry Magazine table] 

Toronto ON: From Jim Johnstone’s Anstruther Press comes Toronto poet Jessica Popeski’s Oratorio (second edition, thirty copies; just how small might the original run have been, I wonder?), the first of two chapbooks the press produced by her in 2015 (the other, which I have not seen, being The Wrong Place). According to her online bio, Popeski is a Classical Voice and Creative Writing graduate from Brandon University, and her dense and dexterous lyrics are heavy with not only a musical tone, but musical language (and even the occasional musical score). Just listen to the opening of the poem “Home Visit,” that reads: “The cat curls a lick-wet paw behind an ear, makes a straw- / skinny mew for milk. String-darned socks smoke like kippers / on the radiator, space heaters strategically sprinkled.” While certainly not pretending to be a language poet gymnast, Popeski isn’t writing a complete straight line, either, allowing her phrases and sentences the occasional pop and sing, allowing each line a bounce in its step.

Mother-in-Law’s Tongue
on the counter, reeking

Lysol. Middling green
rug moss between toes.

Wall, cerulean sky.
Cosmos contained in a

computer screen square.
Blue-headed vireos

belong in books, and
ruby-crowned kinglets,

white-breasted nuthatches.
Aurora Borealis clotting

over prairie suburb sprawl
will be watched on television. (“Last Child in the Woods”)

With Oratorio edited by Dionne Brand, I’m curious to know if Popeski’s second chapbook was as well; and if a debut full-length collection (whether by McClelland and Stewart, where Brand edits, or anywhere else) might be far behind.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lucy Ives, The Hermit

To experiment with every kind of prose imaginable, e.g., the proses of America. I ask, What is the purpose of clarity, beyond description? Clarity, but to what end? The exquisite prose of Melville, of—what is totally different and yet feels related—Rousseau. (“33.”)

I’m happily startled (but not entirely surprised) by just how delightfully compelling and complex New York City writer Lucy Ives’ most recent title is, a small book titled The Hermit (The Song Cave, 2016). Composed in tight prose and full sentences that collage together into a larger coherence, The Hermit exists in an intriguing space that is part-poem, part-essay and part-novel, all blended together into an exploration of self, narrator and character, elements of dreams, lists and journal-entries, logic and the form of the novel (and prose-works generally) and even a thread that floats through one of the characters from A Nightmare on Elm Street. As she writes in the “Notes” at the back of the collection:

The title of the book bears some explanation. Of course, in entry 51, a hermit appears. But this is only a hermit in a work of art. I’m not sure, at any rate, what a hermit is today.
            Strangely, the hermit I have in mind is most closely or accurately figured by the character Nancy Thompson, as portrayed by actor Heather Langenkamp, in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Why is Nancy a hermit? Because she is entirely isolated from others, though she is by no means distant from them.
            Nancy is secluded in a place of psychological horror and physical violence. Sleep (acquiescence) presents a constant threat. It is Nancy’s unspoken decision, a brave one, to believe in the reality of this seclusion, in the ineluctable threat of Freddy’s choice to appear to her, that ultimately preserves her life. “He’s dead, honey, because Mommy killed him,” Nancy’s mother maintains. Although I don’t like this character very much, I understand what she is saying. See also, entry 78.

I won’t spoil what occurs in “entry 78” (an entry that feels visibly distinct from the rest of the book), but the final line in the book, from “80.” reads: “I do not know for how long any of the characters in this book can persist as characters.” I think I very much like the idea that Ives is uncertain of the lives of the characters she has included here (I hesitate to automatically refer to them as “her” characters), and just how long they might survive, potentially, beyond the bounds of the completed book. She suggestion is that she suspects they should or otherwise would, but isn’t sure. I wonder, does she include the narrator as one of her characters, also? Do they include, for example, her references to, readings of and/or quotes by Kathy Acker, Charles Olson, George Oppen and Houellebecq?

I want to write an essay about the novel as a site of novelty, where the preposition “Anything can happen” is somehow tested. (“15.”)

The Hermit follows her books Orange Roses (Ahsahta, 2013) [see my review of such here], The Worldkillers (Ann Arbor MI: SplitLevel Texts, 2014) [see my review of such here], and the novel nineties (Little A, 2015). Her full-length novel, Impossible Views of the World, is due next spring with Penguin.

I discover that writing, as a profession, is about putting oneself into a constrained position, from which there are limited means of escape. The undertaking is not about the words themselves or even some technical skill distinct from survival. One must possess only the ability to tolerate a given position long enough to make it intelligible to others. (“52.”)

The Hermit  is set in eighty short, numbered prose-sections, and I’m fascinated by how Ives writes a book that, in part, tells us how to read it, as her forty-third entry, in full, reads: “One must work, perhaps for some time, to see scenes.” The Hermit reads as an essay/novel-through-accumulation, allowing the short semi-standalone scenes to collect and reshape via the reader, much in the same way, perhaps, as Sarah Manguso’s Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007), a book that heavily influenced my own The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). In the entry immediately prior to the forty-third, she also offers: “An essay occurs in time like dog years, where it isn’t a task of reasoning so much as something that befalls one. I perhaps don’t read or write enough and yet always feel like I am reading, like I am writing.” Or just a bit earlier, as she writes as part of “67.”:

Make an illogical jump—dissociation—but, then, imperceptibly—so, quickly—return to render it logical before anyone has seen. In this way, you may seem to improve upon reason.