Thursday, March 20, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Naomi Guttman

Naomi Guttman was born and raised in Montreal, where she attended Concordia University. In 1992, her book Reasons for Winter won the A.M. Klein Award for Poetry and was short listed for The League of Canadian Poets’ Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, as well as an Artist's Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Wet Apples, White Blood was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in the spring of 2007. She teaches English and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It didn't, though I guess it did make me feel that I was an official member of the tribe. A few years later, it probably did help me get a job. Which did change my life.

2 - How long have you lived in Clinton, NY, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived in Clinton for 11.5 years. I think geography does have an effect. I grew up and lived in Montreal all my life until I moved to Los Angeles in 1989. Then my poetry dried up. The palm trees, the Santa Anas, the banks of jade plants growing like shrubs in people's yards, the relentless sunshine, it was all very weird and disorienting to me. Maybe it could have happened anywhere, but in moving back east, I seem to have become more myself again. I feel a certain comfort in the march of seasons and the landscape of rolling hills and valleys. It's an agricultural area and quite beautiful. As for race and gender and ethnicity (you forgot that)—of course. I see the world the way I do because of gender, etc. and vice versa. It’s inescapable.

3 - 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?

Individual poems begin in mysterious ways. Often it’s a few words that seem to come out of no where like a fragment of music. As for how I make a book of poems, I think that I don’t know yet. My first book was a lot of little pieces. In my second book, which came out last April, I tried to work on a couple of series or longer, narrative poems. Right now I’m working on a sequence as well, and then if other things happen it’s fine. I think it gives me a sense of rhythm and purpose to work on something that’s part of a greater whole; at the same time, it can be unnecessarily limiting and a trap if it means that one sacrifices something because it may not fit. But doing research in a certain area, e.g. the history of breastfeeding was something I researched while working on Wet Apples, White Blood, is part of my method.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

In small doses, I think readings are good for my creative process, though I don’t do them very often. When I give a reading, I feel that the conversation of poetry—and that is how I see poetry, as part of a grand, ancient, contemporary, timeless conversation—is alive, and that I really am part of it. Maybe it’s all illusory, but can be a good thing to see the effects of one’s work on an audience, and sometimes to hear back from them how they have been moved. Of course, sometimes it seems that an audience isn’t moved at all, and that can be hard. But there’s a lesson there too.

5 - 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?

I don’t think poetry can answer questions in any satisfying way. I’m going to sound very retro and old-fashioned, I know, but I do agree with those who say that poetry is the emotional history of the world, and that therefore the essential question poetry engages with—I won’t say answers—is who are we and why are we here? Certainly our approach to that question may have evolved and includes things that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamt of—technologies that complicate the boundary between who we are and who others are, knowledge of our place in the universe and our planet’s history and likely demise, ethics, morality, consciousness, but I believe the basic questions remain the same. The biggest current question for me is how will we survive all the challenges our civilizations have created: pollution, overpopulation, global warming, etc. But those are not theoretical questions of the kind that have to do with poetry, and yet they could be: how can poets effectively engage in these questions without being didactic or repetitive? How can they compete with advertising and the power of the advertising industry today—which functions as the Church did in the Renaissance—as our contemporary patron of the arts.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

My experiences with editors have been good.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I doubt that it will ever seem easy… it’s a challenge, for one thing, to figure out what to include and what to put aside; what order to put things in.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?


9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?


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 get up at 6:30 and do a bunch of chores that help my children get out of the house to school I try to take a walk or do some yoga. Given my druthers, I’d read some poetry and write for a while before going into work, though this is not always possible. Often I’m reading student papers or preparing for class. I do try to write in my journal every day, even if it’s just an account of the weather, even if it’s perfectly boring.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I turn to books, art, music. That’s probably the best nourishment for me—to engage in something in the arts that thrills me. Certain artists in particular—for some reason Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, even though this is now something of a cliché, inspire me… I don’t know why this is, and I haven’t written about it, but they do. I like home-made things, collages. I like naïve art, too—folk art, anything made out of rusty bits of metal excites me.

12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

I’d like to think my more recent work is technically more aware and more sophisticated than my first book, which was published many years ago.

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?

Yes, I agree with that. See #11 above. Art is a big conversation and I think for me I have to keep being engaged in the gross conversation in order to keep the conversation with myself alive, and that includes theatre, science, newspapers, nature, radio, the whole mess.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

It would be a very long list.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel—I haven’t really done much of that—see all the big cheesy places: Pompeii, the Pyramids, Machu Pichu, Taj Mahal… I’ve been a homebody for much of my life, so that’s always a fantasy of mine.

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?

Well, I already have another occupation, which most writers do. I teach for a living, and that does also complement my work. But if I had to choose another vocation, I would probably choose to be a painter or a sculptor. I’ve always loved to work with my hands.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I don’t know if it was a “great book,” but I was pretty impressed with Ian McEwen’s novel Saturday, which I read only recently. I thought Michael Clayton was a fine movie and would like to see it again. In it Tom Wilkinson has one of the most brilliant monologues I’ve ever heard on film, and the best thing is that you get to hear at least part of it twice. Great acting all around, great direction and fantastic editing. I just saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a French film, which was excellent, and really inspirational vis a vis writing: a paralyzed man dictates a book, one letter at a time, by blinking his eyelid. If he had the patience and grace to do that…. It’s something to remember when one feels glum about facing a blank page.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I actually think it’s bad luck to talk about that, so I won’t.

12 or 20 questions archive

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